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Rouge Park Winter Bird Count 2009

Keeping Tabs on the Habitat

article and photos by Grant Weaver,
additional photos by Kevin Wong and Patrick Kramer

White-winged Crossbill
photo by Patrick Kramer

(Jan. 19/09) Volunteers in Rouge Park’s sixth annual Winter Bird Count were treated to an invigorating winter wonderland on Sunday, January 11 as they completed the annual one-day census of birds found in this great suburban wilderness area.
      Monitoring the bird population during the winter season enables the staff to determine whether the park is maintaining itself as a viable habitat and sanctuary. Rouge Park extends from the Oak Ridges Moraine, north of Toronto, to Lake Ontario.
      This year’s event was organized by Rouge Park's new stewardship co-ordinator, Sheryl Santos. Five groups of volunteers, each with at least one expert bird identifier, were assigned a different area of the Park to cover. Sheryl drew on the experience of Park biologist Vicki MacDonald who had organized the count the last three years. But they also walk the walk, and bundled up to accompany the volunteer team that covered Area 4, a large swath of Rouge Park that is located almost entirely within the eastern part of the town of Markham.
      Eighty-five volunteers came out. In addition, some residents of homes in or near the Park counted birds at their backyard feeders.
      With all the results in, Sheryl reported that 67 different species had been identified and a total of 5044 birds counted. The total number of birds was similar to last year but the species identified were up from 58.
      For the January 2007 Winter Bird Count, tramped along with the Area 4 group. We thoroughly enjoyed our day and decided to do it again this year.
      We and the volunteers covered areas of the park that we were allowed to enter only accompanied by or authorized by Rouge Park staff. Some are sensitive, wilderness areas that are not open to the public. We also entered properties owned by Rouge Park and rented out. The tenants had been advised that we may be coming onto those lands to conduct the bird count but, once again, these areas are not open to the general public.

      Now, you may recall the balmy, above freezing temperatures of the first several weeks of that 2007 winter. This year, Old Man Winter had other plans. When the volunteers began arriving for the 8:00 a.m. rendezvous in the parking lot of Rouge Valley Mennonite Church, on Reesor Road south of 14th Avenue, the thermometer stood at -12°C. But a cloudless blue sky, with hardly a breath of wind, made for a great day to be outdoors!
      First, we headed for a wooded area just outside the nearby hamlet of Cedar Grove. The sun, still low in the sky, cast long shadows as we marched along in the fresh snow, crunch, crunch, our breath turning to vapour in front of us.
      Down a lane past a cluster of houses, birds flew into the trees in a front yard. Group leader, Elizabeth Gow, a York University student doing a Master’s degree in ornithology, looked through her binoculars. Juncos, she said, Dark-eyed Juncos, and she counted them, recording the species and number on her clipboard.
      We entered the woods, under the snow-covered branches of tall trees. Volunteer Derek Lancaster, who lives in Scarborough, spotted some Kinglets. But we had to identify the exact species. More study through the binoculars and ‘Ruby-crowned Kinglets’ had been counted and logged.
      Sometimes we simply paused, to look and listen, our eyes and ears trained upwards. Chicka-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee! You often hear them before you see those loveable little Black-capped Chickadees flitting about.
      Trudging along another lane, Elizabeth spotted a Cooper’s Hawk. I asked her what the Cooper’s Hawk found to eat during the wintertime.  
      Small birds, she said.
      Like Black-capped Chickadees?
      Well, that’s Nature. Everyone survives in their own way and everything has to be kept in balance.
      Deer tracks reminded us that other wildlife dwell in the park.
      Just as in 2007, I was amazed at how quickly the expert birders in the group, leader Elizabeth Gow in particular, but also Patrick Kramer and Derek Lancaster, could identify birds. While I was still struggling just to locate them in my binoculars, they had usually already figured out what was up there.
      Not far from where we saw the Cooper’s Hawk, a Hairy Woodpecker put on a showy display for us, giving me time to even photograph it. This introduced the Hairy/Downy Woodpecker conundrum. They are so similar, only the Hairy’s longer beak and somewhat larger size distinguishing it visually from the Downy.
      We crossed to the east side of Reesor Road where some Blue Jays trumpeted their presence and then put in an appearance. Next, we descended a snow-covered hill lined by cedars and pines. Here we came upon what would prove a highlight of this year’s Winter Bird Count. Five or six White-winged Crossbills were busy among the spruces, eating the seeds out of the cones. The ground was littered with the empty winged seed shells from their feast. A careful look through the binoculars revealed the two white stripes on their wings that distinguish them from the Red Crossbill. The males are predominantly red and the females yellow.
      Vicki MacDonald’s familiarity with the area now came to the fore as she led us through the deep snow that hid the path we needed to take. Vicki’s trailblazing soon brought us back into trees along the bank of the Little Rouge Creek whose current kept the centre of the stream from icing over. It was a beautiful winter landscape I would happily have lingered to enjoy.
      A Sharp-shinned Hawk was spotted. Elizabeth Gow explained you have to look at the tail to distinguish it from the Cooper’s Hawk, the latter having a rounded end to its tail, the Sharp-shinned a squared tail.
      Another traversed field of deep snow and we were back at our starting point at Rouge Valley Mennonite Church. It was 11:30 a.m. and time to have a bite to eat and warm up at Tim Hortons on Highway 7 west of 9th Line. Sheryl and Vicki, along with Kevin Wong, had to leave us at this point to head down to the West Rouge Community Centre in Scarborough to get things set up. This is where all five groups would meet later in the afternoon to report in.
      How different we look when our heads and faces are not buried in thick toques and scarves! It was also a chance to chat freely and get to know each other a little. Remember that out on the trails your first duty is to keep eyes and ears open for birds!
      Heather Castrucci, warming up with a hearty bowl of soup, is a retired emergency nurse--always good to have along on a field trip. Group leader Elizabeth Gow, originally from Kingston, is participating in a Rouge Park bird count for the first time but has been involved in other “Christmas bird counts” through the Audubon Society. Jean Enneson works for the Ministry of Natural Resources and is doing a stewardship project on turtles for the Ministry. She told me how she was once outrun by a turtle! It took a short cut through brush to beat her to the water! Liz Miller, a specialist in rare plants, is also with the MNR.
      But we couldn’t get too comfortable. It was time to be off to our next stop, northeast of Reesor Road and Highway 7. Here we walked along the edge of an open field to the ridge of a hill overlooking a river valley. We were treated to a long cameo by some White-breasted Nuthatches that scurried up and down a trunk and along the top, and underside, of branches. We had to retrace our steps but the return was rewarded with the sighting of three American Robins ... that’s right, Robins. Well, I’m sure most Robins do fly south but I was surprised to learn that some stay around if they find a place with a source of food. I grew up believing a Robin in April to be a sign of Spring. This year, I’ll have some questions for that Robin as to its whereabouts of the last few months.
      The trek back to the cars gave me a chance to chat with more of the volunteers. The cold was no challenge for Jennifer Ashbee. She lives in Markham now but is originally from a small community north of Thunder Bay. Anne Partridge, from Scarborough, works part-time for the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority and Patrick Kramer is from Pennsylvania. He’s doing a Ph.D. here on the subject of “behavioural ecology of birds”. One of the questions he is studying is whether birds “outbreed”, in other words, avoid inbreeding. Do they have a way of identifying, through its call, that another bird of its species is from a different area and does that fact make it more desirable as a mate?
      Our third and last stop was south off 16th Avenue, east of Reesor Road. We trudged along a fence line near a house where a Holstein calf stood in the yard. A man came out of the house and saw us.
      Were we from the bird survey?
      Yes, we were. Had he seen any interesting birds?
      Just a Cowbird, he said, pointing to his solitary livestock.
      We laughed and continued on our way. Patrick spotted a Red-tailed Hawk. We were sure we’d see one sooner or later. We entered a stand of young scotch pines, then an open field leading to a wooded hillside. At the top, we saw some Cardinals. Emerging into a wide field planted with pine saplings, Elizabeth spied some American Pipets and a couple of Dark-eyed Juncos on the ground well beyond us. When we came to the spot where the Juncos had landed and flitted about, there were tracks in the snow. Junco tracks, Patrick declared, making a tongue-in-cheek claim to expertise in the new science of recognizing bird tracks. As if checking out all this activity, a solitary Canada Goose passed honking overhead.
      It was 2:30 p.m. now and time to head down to the West Rouge Community Centre in Scarborough to report in. As I drove, I remembered how tasty the chili had been two years ago. This year’s batch was even better and the hot coffee sure hit the spot.
      I also took the opportunity to meet some volunteers from the other areas.
      Group 3, which covered an area north of the Zoo up to Steeles Avenue, included among its number Don Farwell and Ken Clarke who had come all the way from Stratford, Ontario. Heidi Brown told me how they had walked along a section of path hung with birdfeeders. Black-capped Chickadees flew in, thinking these were the humans who were going to refill the feeders! Heidi got some to land on her hand.
      Bill Downing, David Weare and Tony Nicholls from Area 2, covering the Park around Meadowvale from Steeles to Finch, had also seen White-winged Crossbills. These birds were venturing further south, they speculated, because the pinecone crop was good down here whereas further north it had been poor.
      When everyone had had something to eat, and the group leaders time to compile their results, Sheryl Santos, armed with marker and chart paper, put us through the roll call of species identified and numbers counted.
      This year’s highlights included the sighting of a Bald Eagle, Trumpeter Swans, Wild Turkeys, and the Pileated Woodpecker. I have already mentioned the White-winged Crossbills which are usually not found this far south, and the American Pipits who this year are using the park as a migratory route to their wintering grounds in the southern United States to Central America.
      Alan Wells, Chairman of the Rouge Park Alliance, was on hand to thank the volunteers and to congratulate Sheryl Santos for the excellent job she had done in organizing the count.
      I asked Sheryl to tell me more about another project of Rouge Park's, a Breeding Bird Survey. They are hoping to organize one for this Summer.
      How does the BBS work? Each year during the height of the bird breeding season, June for most of the U.S. and Canada, participants skilled in bird identification collect population data along roadside survey routes. Each survey route is 24.5 miles long with stops at half-mile intervals. At each stop, a 3-minute point count is conducted. During the count, every bird seen within a 0.25-mile radius or heard is recorded. Surveys start one-half hour before local sunrise and take abut 5 hours to complete. Over 4100 survey routes are located across the continental U.S. and Canada.
Obviously, a Breeding Bird Survey involves a much greater time commitment than a one-day winter bird count.  Rouge Park biologists are hopeful, however, of finding volunteers who could make that commitment and thus make the project possible. If any of our readers are interested in being involved in the Breeding Bird Survey, Sheryl would love to hear from you.
      But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This year’s Winter Bird Count was a great success. We had a gorgeous Canadian winter day, great people to spend the day with, and the beautiful sights and sounds of Rouge Park to enjoy it in. And last but not least, a fascinating variety of birds to interest both seasoned birders and novices. Hope to see you next year!

Grant Weaver,

    Rouge Park is Canada's premier urban wilderness park. At over 47 km2, the Park provides a reservoir of diversity in Ontario's Greenbelt, and continues to create new wilderness habitats and monitor the health of existing ones. The Winter Bird Count is an annual event, and volunteers of any skill level are welcome. To be notified for next year's event, please email  

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