Christmas brings out the birders

Local naturalists gathered to count fowl this Boxing Day and a few lucky birders caught a glimpse of the great grey owl.
Birdwatchers Michael Runtz, left, and Ryan Zimmerling were on the lookout for fowl in the Ottawa region for the Macnamara Field Naturalists' Club's annual Christmas bird count. (CBC)

Birdwatchers from around the Ottawa region gathered today in Pakenham and Arnprior for the annual Christmas Bird Count.

Organized by the Macnamara Field Naturalists Club, similar bird counts are occurring in thousands of locations across North America as part of the citizen science movement that aims to gather data for trained scientists.

"It shows general trends [in population], whether they're increasing or decreasing," explained club president Michael Runtz. "It shows movements, often based on food supply, so it gives us a crude barometer of what our bird species are doing in North America."

While the National Audubon Society started these citizen bird counts in 1900 as a kind of protest to bird hunts, Arnprior began its own local fowl survey in 1913 and today Runtz continues the tradition — 2012 marks his 47th consecutive Christmas count — inspiring others with his passion.

This morning, Samantha Carter took part in her first bird count, braving the -18C temperature that greeted her and other birders at 6 a.m. when the count began.

"I forgot it was today so I was a bit surprised when my mom woke me up," said Carter, whose sharp eyes and ears are a complement to Runtz's knowledge of bird species. "I spotted a barred owl and a great grey owl. I just saw their wings so I'd point them out to Michael and he'd identify them."

Counts like the one in Pakenham and Arnprior take place between mid-December and the beginning of January, each inside a circular area of relative wilderness roughly 12 kilometres in diameter. Birders head out in the morning for the entire day and count all the birds they can find.

Ryan Zimmerling, a wildlife biologist and member of the Macnamara Field Naturalists Club, says the data collected is very useful to scientists.

"Birds are a good indicator of the health of the environment," said Zimmerling. "Birds can tell us a lot of things … birds can be indicators of changes in habitat types or perhaps changes in the types of food that are in the environment."

Raptors and waterfowl are on the rise, said Zimmerling — the latter attracted to the area with the increase in hydro-electric generation. Zimmerling also noted that snowy owls are in decline.

"It may just mean they've moved into other areas … but it's been a long time since we've seen snowy owls on this count," he said.

In Runtz's nearly 50 years of Christmas bird counts, he's also noticed changes in species' proliferation of the region.

"There's some very obvious trends. Some species have become quite scarce, quite rare — northern goshawks for example — a hawk that used to be quite common when I was young is now very rare indeed," Runzt said. "Then other birds like bald eagles have become common."

It wasn't until the early 1970s that the first bald eagles were spotted in the area, but now, said Runtz, birders count between eight and 16, which he called phenomenal.

The use of pesticides like DDT hurt bald eagle and peregrine falcon populations, but now that DDT has been banned, these species are rebounding.