Winter Bird Counting

The Christmas Bird Count is an annual tradition that entices naturalists to down steaming cups of pre-dawn coffee and then head out birding at first light.

January 17, 2011 | | Environment

On a recent mid-December outing, Chris, hat firmly on head, Darcy McKelvey and I drove the country roads between Caledon Village and Caledon East looking for birds. From time to time we exited the car to take a closer look at roadside fields and woods.

Female cardinal. Photo by Peter McMullen.

The Christmas Bird Count is an annual tradition that entices naturalists to down steaming cups of pre-dawn coffee and then head out birding at first light. It is a wonderful way to commune with nature at a time of year that, to creatures of tropical provenance like us, seems hostile to life.

The count is hardly a wild goose chase (though Canada Geese do often show up!) Careful searching reveals that our winter hills are graced with plenty of birds.

Chris, Darcy and I spotted 22 species. The combined count from all of the sectors in Dufferin and north Peel surveyed by the Upper Credit Field Naturalists was a healthy 46 species.

Christmas bird counters spend a great deal of time ogling bird feeders.

Because most feeders are positioned next to windows for easy viewing by the people inside, it’s a good idea on to do the count as a team.

I need not elaborate on the misunderstanding that could arise as an awakening resident opens her curtains to find a strange person pointing a pair of binoculars at her window. On the other hand, a team of strange, ogling people doing the ogling is somehow far less suspicious.

Tree sparrow. Photo by Peter McMullen.

Feeders are bird magnets in winter and are where most of the birds are counted. We found squadrons of goldfinches, chickadees, tree sparrows and pine siskins at the feeders.

And where small birds congregate, so too do the predators. Bird

hawks such as the sharp-shinned hawk pictured at right include feeders in their hunting circuits.

A highlight for my group was a red-bellied woodpecker. These southern woodpeckers are slowly colonizing this region. Another notable bird was a white throated sparrow.

In the warmer months these sparrows sing their lovely “Oh Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada” in area woodlands. In winter they put their music on pause and most fly southward to more temperate climes.

For other birds — believe it or not – Headwaters country is their southern temperate clime. Refugees from extreme Arctic cold, these species find relative warmth and longer days for foraging among our wintry hills.

A sharp-skinned hawk. Photo by Peter McMullen.

A northern shrike that we found is one of these refugees. It was poised in typical shrike fashion atop the bare bones of a deciduous tree scanning for prey – small birds and mammals necessary for its winter survival.

Chris, Darcey and I were graced as well by fine views of a larger northern predator – the rough-legged hawk.

We found three rough-legs, open-country hawks that hunt lemmings and Arctic hare in the summer tundra. Here in winter, our hills supply the mice and rabbits necessary to see them through until the Arctic beckons them north again.

One of the delights of the Christmas bird count is hearing the tales of other count participants. A fellow team found the rarest of our raptors – a peregrine.

Another team experienced an incredible David Attenborough moment as they watched a golden eagle dining on pre-Christmas turkey! Sighting a majestic eagle, especially one engaged in a “nature red in tooth and claw” drama, is a

Wild turkeys. Photo by Peter McMullen.

peak birding experience.

I encourage anyone with an interest in birds to join a Christmas count. Most naturalist clubs take part and have them every year. Expertise is not an issue. As mentioned, counters work in teams and each team has at least one experienced birder.

Participating is a great way for everyone to learn about and appreciate our diverse winter bird life. It’s fun, easy and enjoyable.

But please remember a hat.

More Info

Learn more about the North American Christmas Bird Counts at

Locally the count is organized by the The Upper Credit Field Naturalists at

About the Author More by Don Scallen

Don Scallen enjoys sharing his love of nature through his writing and presentations. Check out his blog "Notes from the Wild".

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