Manitoba·Photos

Birders flock to Winnipeg streets for annual Christmas Bird Count

Winnipeg birders flocked to city streets Sunday as part of the Christmas Bird Count. It's a citizen science project that sees thousands of people record their bird observations across North America every winter.

Citizen science project sees thousands of volunteers head out for day of birding across Canada, U.S.

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      Winnipeg birders flocked to city streets Sunday as part of the Christmas Bird Count.

      The annual citizen science event sees thousands of birders across North America head out with binoculars to make observations of the different birds they see. About 80 volunteers, spread across 13 zones, took part in Winnipeg.

      The count occurs on one day a year some time between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5, depending on the location.

      The records from the count are pooled and the data tells an interesting story about population trends and species distribution over time.

      "It produces a huge amount of data…. It's a valuable tool for long-term trends," Rudolf Koes, the co-ordinator for the Winnipeg count, said Friday. "The scientific aspect is a nice byproduct, but it's not one of the driving forces for most people."

      Blood sport

      The tradition officially got started in 1900 as an alternative to what was then a bird hunt, according to Koes. Hunters would head out and basically shoot birds indiscriminately for sport.

      There's a lot of competition between zones to see who got the best birds.- Jo Swartz

      "In the New England area in the late 1800s, they had something called the side hunt. Two groups of men would go out and they would try and shoot as many birds as they could. Whichever team had the most birds killed was the winner," said Koes, who is a bird tour guide and retired high school teacher.

      Over 100 years later, the activity has taken on a far gentler, peaceful tone. People in more than 2,000 localities across North America participate every year.

      Spring chicken

      For the most part, there aren't too many spring chickens participating in the count, at least not in Winnipeg.

      Jo Swartz, a doctor by day and volunteer with the count, said that while the local group doesn't attract too many young people, it has seen an increase in interest over the last few years.
      The varied thrush, a close relative of the American robin not commonly found in Manitoba, has been spotted in Winnipeg during the Christmas Bird Count in recent years. (D. Enright)

      "There's a lot of us older ones," Swartz said. "However, for the last few years I've often had university people, either in zoology or ornithology or environmental studies, sometimes we get those kids in.... The more the better."

      Swartz has been involved with the project for almost 15 years. Her interest in birds started in the early 90s when she and her husband started getting into watching birds in their backyard.

      "We had a nice little ecosystem there," she said. Those moments in the backyard inspired Swartz to reach out to people involved with Nature Manitoba. That led her to the Christmas Bird Count.

      Fast forward a few years, and Swartz has been promoted as zone captain for her Wellington Crescent neighbourhood and the surrounding area. 

      "I love it, I love it, I love birding!" she said. "I love being outside, I love nature. There's a lot of camaraderie, there's a lot of sharing and good company."

      Rare sightings

      Over the years, she's seen a handful of rare species while on the count. One year it was a Townsend's solitaire; another year it was a Carolina wren. Boreal owls and varied thrush have also made appearances, Swartz said.
      Zone captain Jo Swartz (bottom left) leads a small group of birders through the English Gardens at Assiniboine Park to look and listen for feathered friends. The city is divided into 13 zones that are sampled by about 80 people during the count. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

      A warming climate has meant more birds that would historically over-winter further south are starting to pop up in surveys in Canada, Koes said.

      "There is more diversity, there are quite a few species … that would've been extremely rare, and now with the general warming of the winters, these birds are becoming more common. They're more able to survive."

      Koes said when he first came to the city a few decades ago, the American Crow rarely stuck around through Winnipeg's winter.

      "Nowadays there are literally hundreds of them that winter throughout the city," he said.

      More pileated woodpeckers and bald eagles are wintering in Winnipeg, Koes said. Red-bellied woodpeckers — a species that would normally only be found as far north as southeastern Minnesota in the winter — are being spotted more often in Winnipeg, too.

      Friendly competition

      Every year when the day of counting is done, volunteers flock up and migrate to a member's home for a potlock dinner and tally up the species seen during the count. Rare sightings are shared, laughs are exchanged and there's even some friendly ribbing that goes on.

      "There's a lot of competition between zones to see who got the best birds. It's fun; it's all good-natured," Swartz said. "It's fun to sit around and talk with your friend to see what they've got."

      When pressed with one of the questions true birders hate most — "What's your favourite species?" — Swartz produced a common refrain: "I like them all. I can't say!"

      Some 45 species were spotted across the city Sunday. Pileated woodpeckers, downy and hairy woodpeckers, bald eagles, American robins, snow bunting, gray partridge, pine grosbeaks, common redpolls, house finches and bohemian waxwings all made the list.

      Rare winter species in the Townsend's solitaire, red-bellied woodpecker, snowy owl, Eurasian tree sparrow and merlin were also observed, Swartz said.

      About the Author

      Bryce Hoye

      Reporter

      Bryce Hoye is an award-winning journalist and science writer with a background in wildlife biology and interests in courts, social justice, health and more. He is the Prairie rep for OutCBC. Story idea? Email bryce.hoye@cbc.ca.

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