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Birdland I: taking flight


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Birds. We learn about them in school. We hear much about their migratory prowess. And every once in a while, we might clock some of it — a "V" of geese winging south, a blot of sparrows constellating the sky. But as a species, we barely pay attention. Especially after Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds.

Maybe we should. While flocks of birds can occasionally be creepy, they're always impressive. In fact, bird migrations are of such complexity, scale, and marvel that even the great, dusty treks of wildebeest in Africa and the peregrinations of caribou in Canada's Arctic pale by comparison. Think about it: every spring and fall, billions of these creatures — from the smallest insect-like hummingbirds to the largest predatory hawks and eagles — wing their way north- and southward to and from breeding and feeding grounds that can be 10,000 kilometres apart.

"A tsunami of birds all around us," once chirped Dr. Rob Butler, a former senior scientist with the Canadian Wildlife Service who now works with Bird Studies Canada. "It's astounding that people don't see them."

Indeed with Vancouver being right on the Pacific Flyway, one of the world's greatest natural wonders takes place annually in the sky over us, in our backyards and parks, across our forests and shorelines, virtually undetected by us. I say virtually because, there are, of course, birders.

Yes, birders. And no stranger, more obsessive group of humans has ever walked the planet. When I was a weird, nature-mad kid, for instance, I disdained birds because the birders I knew were simply too weird. Unlike other collectors, they had nothing concrete to show for their labours. Sightings? Maybe. Calls? Perhaps. Photos? Never. Notes to compare on their latest phantoms. There was also the widespread human motif of irritated, binocular-hung necks and Tilley hats; a bona fide fraternity — and a big one at that.

Next to gardening, birding is North America's most popular outdoor hobby, and one of the most popular places to practice it is on the sand spits of Point Pelee, Long Point and Rondeau parks along the Ontario shore of Lake Erie. Spring/summer is the time for songbirds and fall the window for raptors; in either season the birding "scene" at each of these places is huge, attracting thousands from across Canada, the States and Europe.

Why am I telling you this? Because about five years ago I had a magazine assignment in which I was required to infiltrate the birding community, to dress, to peer and prune like them, to walk diligently in their splayed footprints, and to squawk the birder squawk. My partner in crime would be a photographer friend I occasionally worked with who was also an ardent birder. He crisscrossed the country each year to work on government bird contracts and lead commercial birding tours. Geeky, indeed, yet he maintained enough objectivity to admit that the people he kept company with comprised a group of OCD candidates that could give reality television's Hoarders a run for their money. In addition to celebrating/sending up the human scene with guaranteed humour and schadenfreude, the magazine piece would also investigate this particular and most peculiar form of biophilia — not to mention delivering, so thought the editor, plenty of outdoor scrambling involving the occasional quest and hard-won sighting.

Where to start? Well, your own backyard of course.

In preparation, I'd attended a presentation on the eve of the 30th annual Whistler Breeding Bird Survey. Gatherings with such titles promised to be somnolent affairs at the best of times, but the fact that this one was held in the library guaranteed it. Still, some introduction to this shadowy world was required.

The first thing I learned was that "point count" didn't mean pointing at a bird and counting it. Instead, the protocol was to drive a transect where you stopped the car every half mile (what was that?...) and listened for three minutes, then drove another half mile (...like 800 metres?) and listened for three minutes, etc. You apparently needed 50 stops — points — per transect. You also needed to start at a ridiculously early hour. In Whistler, you began at the River of Golden Dreams and ended in Pemberton, some 20 kilometres later. I don't know how many half-miles that was, but it didn't seem to add up.

Which was weird, because we were looking at a spread sheet. There was no PowerPoint or anything of visual interest, just data from 30 years worth of point counts that, even projected on a screen, was small enough you had to squint.

"Back in the day, if one car passed as you were making these counts it was a lot," said the dude dishing on the survey data. "Nowadays around 14 to15 cars pass you per stop; the noise makes it difficult to count birds by their distant songs."

No doubt, though I imagined the growing highway noise was also helping to make those songs ever more distant.

There was, of course, more: Varied Thrushes had dropped from 50 in 1981 to five or so in 1990 because of development and lack of bottomland forest; most arboreal nesters were on the decline; swallows were in peril, which was bad, but so were European Starlings, which was good, as they were an introduced and troublesome species; the Evening Grosbeak was exhibiting a cycle of building and then crashing; the once rare Black-headed Grosbeak was booming in the area ("they love feeders, sunflower seeds and such" — that seemed like a clue), while the eastern equivalent Rose-breasted Grosbeak was on the decline; no one — especially Americans — could, or was willing to, distinguish the American Crow from the Northwestern Crow; Goldeneye species had to be located visually because their calls were indistinguishable.

Fascinating as it was, imbibing such arcane information was like trying to swallow a mouthful of cotton. Fortunately, an important general takeaway had emerged: between annual, continent-wide, breeding bird surveys like the one about to commence, and 100+ years of Christmas bird counts, these were the longest-running and most ambitious animal-tracking projects in North America. That put me in mind of Ontario's Long Point Bird Observatory, which at the time was about to celebrate 50 years of the oldest continuous migration monitoring on the continent.

Which in turn suggested that might be the best place for me to start my life as a birder...

Next week: twitchers, binos, and LBJs

Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.


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