'Like a little treasure hunt': Christmas bird count marks 100 years

More than 100 birdwatchers scoured the national capital region Sunday, counting as many birds as they could, for the 100th Ottawa-Gatineau Christmas Bird Count.

What started out as a holiday hunt has evolved into a collection of valuable data

Black-capped chickadees have been spotted at every single Ottawa-Gatineau Christmas Bird Count, says organizer Bernie Ladouceur. This year marked the 100th anniversary of the first count. (Tony Beck/Always An Adventure)

The light chatter about loving nature at Ottawa's Rockcliffe lookout gives way to action as someone in the group spots another prize in their treasure hunt.

That hunt is the 100th annual Ottawa-Gatineau Christmas Bird Count, a joint effort of the Ottawa Field-Naturalists' Club (OFNC) and the Club des ornithologues de l'Outaouais (COO).

And Sunday, more than 100 bird watchers scoured the national capital region, counting as many birds as they could.

The local Christmas count was founded in 1919. Counts also take place throughout North America, with about 2,000 of them occurring each year.

The data compiled gives a snapshot of bird populations and migration patterns. Locally, bird watchers try to count every bird they can within 12 kilometres of the Peace Tower. 

Photographer Tony Beck has been taking part in the bird count for more than three decades. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC)

Binoculars 'more valuable than a gun'

The event has roots dating to 1900 in Massachusetts, when people would shoot birds on Christmas Day.

"It's replacing the original tradition of the Christmas hunt," said wildlife photographer Tony Beck.

"Now we're learning that binoculars [are] actually more powerful, more valuable than a gun."

This northern cardinal was one of the birds spotted during the annual Christmas bird count in Ottawa. (Nina Stavlund/Always An Adventure )

Beck has been birding for more than 35 years, and said it's encouraging to see the count and citizen science take off. 

"It's quite euphoric. It's a connection to nature. And it's also like a little treasure hunt … and if [the birds are] rare and unusual it can be quite exciting," said Beck. 

Interesting and alarming finds

Rachelle Lapensee says the tracking produces valuable data that can help with conservation efforts. 

"These bird counts are important to me because the numbers can help. The numbers give us a better idea of our winter birds in this area, of what kind of migrants might stay and why," she said. 

Lapensee added that she's noticed trends both "interesting" and "alarming."

"Especially when you see specific zones where there used to be massive populations and, for example, development comes into those areas — and our population by the next year alone drops significantly," she said. 

Not all serious

But it's not all serious: the count, Lapensee said, is also a great opportunity to socialize with other bird enthusiasts. 

We joke in a bird nerd sense and we have a good time.— Rachelle Lapensee

"It's fun. We joke in a bird-nerd sense, and we have a good time, lots of laughs," she said.

"And finally [I have] someone to talk to who actually knows what I'm talking about when I use four-letter band code." 

Rachelle Lapensee says she was introduced to birds at a young age and has had a passion for them ever since. She was one of more than 100 bird enthusiasts who took part in Sunday's annual Christmas bird count. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC)

After a day full of sightings, participants nested in for a diner buffet to compile numbers and earn bragging rights for their sightings. 

Bernie Ladouceur, the main organizer and compiler for Ottawa-Gatineau, said he's taken part 47 years in a row. 

"It's pretty amazing, especially when you look at the old records," Ladouceur said.

"In 1919 … it's just [incredible] how drastically different then is to now," said Ladouceur.

The numbers will now be tallied and submitted to the Audubon Society. 


Krystalle Ramlakhan is a multi-platform journalist with CBC Ottawa. She has also worked for CBC in P.E.I., Winnipeg and Iqaluit.