Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Don't believe Wiarton Willie - the birds are the true harbingers of spring.

Bird watching is a pretty geeky past-time. See exhibit A. If you venture as far as Point Pelee (the southernmost point in Canada, and a great birding spot), it is not uncommon to see people wearing Tilley hats, tucking their socks into their pants (for fear of lyme disease), and picking up bird-like habits.

That said, bird watching can be a great way to keep an eye on our changing planet. Bird populations are a benchmark for the health of ecosystems; as water levels change and marshes give way to suburban development, some bird species will decrease in number, and some will disappear altogether.

Spring is a great time of year to peep some birds, or get in the habit of bird watching if you haven't before. The trees are bare, and many species are migrating back north for the summer. This means that you might see species that summer as far north as the Arctic, but take a rest at a local habitat before moving on. It can be really exciting to see something like an oldsquaw hanging out with some mallards near a pier in Hamilton. That said, if you're new to birding, anything other than a Canada Goose, crow, herring gull or mallard is likely to be pretty exciting.

How to start:

  • Buy a book. They can run pretty cheap. My suggestion: A Field Guide to Birds East of the Rockies, by Roger Tory Peterson. You can find these online or at your local bookseller, as Mr. Peterson is a pretty well-known guy. (My one qualm, so far, with this book is that Peterson refers to pinkish hues as “flesh tones”).
  • Listen to a birdcall CD. You can sometimes find them bundled with the books, and it’s a good idea to buy the one that corresponds with your book, as you’ll find it easier to follow along. I suggest Peterson’s Birding by Ear CD.
  • Find yourself some binoculars. These range from the fairly inexpensive to extremely pricey. I would suggest a pair of compact Nikon 8x25s or 9x25s, or a pair of Bushnell 8x25 H20s, which are waterproof and less expensive (about $60 where the Nikons will be between $110 and $120), but heavier. And slightly less comfortable, I think.

Where to go?

There are lots of places to go in and around Guelph. Your first stop might actually be a birding forum like this one. I also suggest just keeping an eye out while walking around Guelph – I’ve seen herons, buffleheads, mergansers, and swallows this way. This is a good time of year to keep an eye on the Speed River if you happen to pass by it on your walk to school.

The Arboretum hosts wildlife workshops where you can refine your birding skills. Conveniently located on campus, it provides a home or a rest stop to many different kinds of birds, including owls, woodpeckers, finches, swallows, and more. When I was there last weekend, I spotted a red-bellied woodpecker.

Luther Marsh is located about an hour outside of Guelph, near Arthur, and it’s a little icy right now. When the snow melts a little more, it’ll be home (or a stop on the migration path) to species of waterfowl and shorebirds. I went on Sunday and didn’t see much other than chickadees and turkey vultures. We did end up seeing an osprey in the conservation area, and a northern harrier on our drive home.

Guelph Lake is a pretty great place to go as well. It features an osprey nest, and provides a suitable home or rest stop to shorebirds, waterfowl, owls, woodpeckers, etc.

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  1. Posted by: Sabeeh Alvi on Apr 8, 2008 @ 2:38am

    Extremely informative & time-saving. Thanks a lot for sharing. Happy Birding...

  2. Posted by: on Jul 17, 2008 @ 2:48pm

    Heavier binoculars might be good to reduce shaking though!

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