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