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Rouge Park Winter Bird Count,
It Was for the Birds

Here they are, eagle-eyed Group 4. From left to right: Jeff Boone, Sarah Lamon, Christine Deschamps, Paul Tripodo, Jane Hutton, Jordon Leck, Vicki MacDonald, a biologist with Rouge Park, Julia Marko Dunn and Chris Dunn, two expert bird identifiers.


      Rouge Park, with its 41 square kilometers, is one of the largest parks ever created within an urban area.  It represents the desire of citizens to preserve natural spaces amid the growth of cities, to ensure there is an important place among us for plant, animal and bird life.  But how successful are we in this work of preservation and enhancement of natural spaces?  One indicator would be how well we maintain, or increase, bird populations.

With this in mind, the Winter Bird Count in Rouge Park began and is now an annual event.  A count taken in the winter is aimed at species of non-migratory birds but may also identify some that are at a late stage of southward migrations.  This year’s event took place on Sunday, January 7, 2007 and, as always, the volunteers who participated varied from highly expert birders to novices. 

Five groups of volunteers covered Rouge Park from Oak Ridges Moraine to Lake Ontario.  GuidingStar.ca decided that this year we would accompany one of the groups and were assigned to eagle-eyed Group Four, given an extensive area in Markham centred around Highway 7 and Reesor Road.

16th Avenue bridge over the Rouge River

The first thing we learned is that birders get up early.  We met our cohorts in the parking lot of Tim Hortons on Highway 7 near Ninth Line at 7:30 a.m.  The weather promised to be cloudy with sunny periods.  Group 4 was led by two expert bird identifiers, Chris Dunn and Julia Marko Dunn, and included Vicki MacDonald, a biologist with Rouge Park. The troupe was completed by Jeff Boone, Sarah Lamon, Paul Tripodo, Christine Deschamps, Jane Hutton, Jordon Leck and, finally, myself and Charles Lue from GuidingStar.ca.

Introductions made, we set off for our first stop, an area adjacent to Rouge Valley Mennonite Church on Reesor Road, south of Highway 7.  A Red-tailed Hawk was spotted on the way.  Now, armed with binoculars, we headed into the parkland, looking down into a clearing dotted with trees.  Still within sight of the cars, we were already in luck. 

Watching Julia and Chris, I saw in action the skill of the birder.  Listening for sound clues, attentive to slight movements in the branches of trees or above the low lying brush, they spotted and identified, at this first pause, Chickadees, Gold Finches, a Downy Woodpecker, White-breasted Nuthatch and Eastern Bluebird.

“There, just above the teasel,” Julia said.

The teasel?  I could see I was going to add some new words to my vocabulary.

A pair of Canada geese passed honking overhead as if to give the less expert of us a chance to shine.  But when gulls flew over, Chris was able to pinpoint them as Greater Black-backed Gulls and recorded their species and number.

Along a path through thick woods, we heard a piping call that Julia told us was a Blue Jay, different from the more strident sound one more frequently hears.  As we walked on we did also hear that screechier call--probably a warning, Julia explained, whereas the softer piping is likely calmer chat among themselves.

And do you know that the more dee’s you hear at the end of a Chickadee’s song, the more excited or stressed it is at that moment?  

Jeff, Julia, Sarah, and Chris near Rouge Valley Mennonite Church

Christine and Paul branch out into ID'ing trees.


    Paul Tripodo and Christine Deschamps were modest about their skills in birding but proved very knowledgeable in another area that fits with it very well, the identification of trees.  Christine is a natural heritage technician with the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority.  The two of them enjoyed naming species of trees we passed and I realized that, for all the love I have of the outdoors, there are few trees that I can actually name. 

“It’s easy to catch on with trees,” Christine joked.  “They stand still.

    We saw a squirrel’s nest and learned from Jeff, whose knowledge of nature is encyclopaedic, that the real word for it is drey.

    At the next stage, just off a very rural extension of 14th Avenue, a flock of Mourning Doves flew out of the trees along a lane where we passed.  We tried to estimate their numbers as they sped to the other side of the field.  Another skill required in a bird census — you can't just wing it — is the art of estimating numbers in a flock, in the case of our Mourning Doves, 60 to 70.
 

From there we headed off to another section of Rouge Park located near the hamlet of Locust Hill.  A stone monument nearby narrated a brief history of the Reesor family.  They originally emigrated from Switzerland to Pennsylvania and then in the late 18th century came up to Canada to settle and farm in this area.  Here, in fact, we tried to walk over a ploughed field but the unseasonably mild winter had made it too muddy and we sought another route.

This was also the local where we did the first of what Julia jokingly called “bushwacking”, a word that wasn’t far off the mark for we had to make our way down a steep and pathless wooded hill into the river valley.  Back on level ground again, listening and watching, Julia identified a Gold Finch’s song.  This stop did not offer a lot of sightings but we were rewarded with some sunshine and paused by the river to capture the moment in a group photo.

At the end of this stage, we said goodbye to Jeff and Sarah.  Vicki and Jordon also left us to head for the West Rouge Community Centre where Vicki would be hosting all five groups at the end of the day for a reporting-in session.

One path that even our intrepid birders, Vicki, Jordon
and Chris found impassible. Is it really January 7?

Paul, Christine, Jane Hutton, and Eddie Colacchio
on the 16th Avenue bridge.

After a lunch at the Tim Hortons where we had first gathered, we were joined by Eddie Colacchio and our reconfigured Group Four headed out for the first of our two remaining stops, a location near Reesor Road and 16th Avenue.  Walking the one-lane bridge on 16th Avenue, we identified a Kingfisher and, once into the woods, we spotted a Cooper’s Hawk.  Crossing a clearing, Christine found a large feather which Julia believed was likely from a Wild Turkey.  It would have been quite a thrill to come upon these huge birds.  Was the feather sufficient evidence for our purposes?  Julia explained that we had to either see or hear the bird to be able to count it.

We were soon consoled by a Hermit Thrush which perched nearby, eating the berries that he found plentiful, and allowing us to observe him for several minutes before he flew off.  From a distant farm could be heard the crowing of a rooster.  In jest we all looked to Chris.  No, this would not be counted.
 



    Our last stop took us to a Rouge Park ecological restoration area where we noted  the tree planting work that has been done.  Among the saplings, old fence posts and hydro poles have been stood in place in the hope that their tops, and their many holes and crevices, would attract birds looking for perches and nesting sites.  Further along the path that led by the river we spotted four Mallards.  A Red-tailed Hawk passed above us and alighted high on a branch, giving us lots of time to study it with binoculars.

It was now half past two.  As we strolled back to the cars, I asked Julia how she and Chris had met and, not surprisingly, their common interest in birds--and nature and the outdoors generally--played the key role.  It was work at a bird banding station on Pelee Island that first brought them together.

 

Jeff, Sarah and Christine 'bushwacking'

Reesor Pond, not in Rouge Park
but popular with geese



   
Now we had covered all our assigned areas.  Christine, Paul and Jane said goodbye, well pleased with their day in Rouge Park.  The remainder of the group headed off to the West Rouge Community Centre to report in, but not without making a quick stop en route at Reesor Pond, not part of the survey area, but where Chris and Julia wanted to check out a report that Cackling Geese had been spotted.

At the Community Centre we were glad to meet up with Vicki and Jordon again but — I’ll be honest —  especially heart warming was the sight of the delicious hot and hearty chili, the pot of coffee and the cookies they had laid out for everyone.

 



     Chris and Julia immediately got to work tabulating our numbers.  After the other groups had arrived and done the same, and everyone had enjoyed something to eat, Vicki drew our attention to the huge chart she had prepared containing a list of bird species.  She read the list one name at a time and recorded the numbers as each group reported how many they had seen.  Of course, not every species had been identified by the volunteers and, not surprisingly, numbers were high for the old reliable Canada Goose, and for Mallards, Morning Doves, Ring-billed Gulls and Black-capped Chickadees.

But there were also some surprises.  The Hermit Thrush that our group had seen was the only one spotted and had never been seen before in a Rouge Park Winter Bird Count.  Ten Trumpeter Swans were seen, a species that was once close to extinction.  A Red-bellied Woodpecker had been spotted and, as Vicki MacDonald explained later, this species is an indicator of mature Carolinian forest.  One Horned Grebe was reported, a sensitive wetland species, and the Eastern Bluebird that we had seen was a pleasant surprise as this bird is rarely found here in the winter.


Vicki MacDonald takes the roll
 call of species sighted.

I had an opportunity to chat with members of the other groups and, among so many interesting and friendly people, was particularly intrigued by Jim Fairchild.  Jim is an expert on birds and told me that he has identified 414 species in Ontario.  He is an expert on butterflies too.  

It was five o’clock and time to head for home.  Charles and I had spent an extraordinary day.  It had been always interesting and stimulating, sometimes exhausting, but always fun.

When the final numbers were tabulated by Vicki MacDonald, fifty-two species had been identified, and the total count was 3,339.  The number of species is pretty consistent with previous years but the total numbers are down from the 5,000 of last year.  Why is this?  It could be that with the mild winter, the birds have not come as far south as in previous years and that they are more dispersed across a wider area.

If you love nature, and especially birds, and whether you are an expert or a novice, you will enjoy the Winter Bird Count in Rouge Park.  So, consider 2008, and get those binoculars shined up!
 

Group 1's Robert Marshall, Brian Jones, Alix Martin, Doug Martin, Bob Clay
 and Jim Fairchild covered from Twin Rivers to Lake Ontario.

Erica Lagios and Leila Grace reported on behalf of Group 2 which covered east of Metro Toronto Zoo. 
 
 
Jorn Kristensen and Tanya reported Group Five's results from Markham's Toogood Pond, Waldon Park, Milne Park and Markham Green Golf Course.

 

For more information about participation in the Rouge Park Winter Bird Count, you can e-mail Vicki MacDonald at birdcount@rougepark.com.  
 

Grant Weaver   

 


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