Thunder Bay, Ont., annual bird count numbers drop

The recent cold temperatures in northwestern Ontario didn't deter bird watchers from taking part in this year's annual Christmas Bird Count. The birds themselves were another matter, however.

Cold weather a factor, participant says

In total, about 4,800 birds were spotted, which is less than half as many as were seen during the 2016 count. Wildlife biologist Brian Ratcliff said cold weather and high winds are to blame for the drop in numbers. (Brian Ratcliff)

The recent cold temperatures in northwestern Ontario didn't deter bird watchers from taking part in this year's annual Christmas Bird Count. The birds themselves were another matter, however.

More than 40 people headed out in temperatures that dipped below -30 C for the count, which took place on Boxing Day, said wildlife biologist Brian Ratcliff, who's a regular participant.

And while they did spot about 4,800 birds, that's less than half as many as were seen last year, when about 9,800 birds were seen, Ratcliff said. The group has averaged just under 9,000 bird sightings a year over the last 10 years, he said.

This year's sightings were spread across 35 bird species, which is about 10 below average, Ratcliff said.

Weather a factor

"The elements came into play," he said. "It was cold, the wind was up. But also, the observers who were out in the field ... it's hard to hear birds calling when you have your toque on, your hoodie up, and then your outer jacket overtop of your head, too."

"With the wind and the cold temperatures, a lot of the birds just were not calling," Ratcliff said, adding they're tough to spot as "most of them were holed up somewhere out of the wind, trying to keep warm themselves."

He said the group did spot a brown thrasher, which is a relatively rare sight and was a highlight of this year's count.

Purple finches, waterfowl among no-shows

The biggest surprise, though, were the birds that weren't seen. For example, there were no waterfowl spotted during this year's count.

"You need open water, and along the Thunder Bay waterfront, everything inside the breakwall was frozen," Ratcliff said. "Beyond the breakwall, with the mist coming off in the cold morning, it was impossible to see if there were any ducks out there at all."

Usually, a few species of waterfowl are seen during the count, Ratcliff said.

Other notable omissions were purple finches, and boreal chickadees.

"All those species are fairly reliable," Ratcliff said. "Last year, purple finches, we had 195 of them."​