HUNTSVILLE – With the 39th annual Algonquin Park Christmas Bird Count, observers noted the disappearance of an “alien” bird and the emergence of some rare species.
Bird watchers spotted four great gray owls during the Algonquin Park Bird Count on Dec. 29. These owls are a rare species to be seen in the park.
/ Mark Webbe
Ron Tozer, who compiles the data, said the count is done annually as a way of monitoring the winter bird population in the park. The event has become a popular activity among those who enjoy bird watching and Tozer said there is never an issue with finding enough volunteers to participate.
The bird count takes place in the same spot every year, a 15-mile (24 kilometre) diameter circle at Rutter Lake on the Centennial Ridges Trail.
“A large group of people travelled a long way from southern Ontario, primarily, and walked long distances all day to contribute to this monitoring of the winter bird population and have a good time as well; it’s a social event,” said Tozer.
During this year’s count, participants didn’t require snowshoes, which made trekking around easier and faster for those who aren’t used to wearing snowshoes said Tozer.
Some of the highlights of the count were the apparent disappearance of rock pigeons, which have been part of the count since 1998.
Tozer said Rock Pigeons are “aliens” to Algonquin Provincial Park as they ended up in the park after nesting in an MTO sand dome near the east gate entrance.
“I pointed it out because we have no towns in the circle and very few feeders, which these aliens depend on, we’re now the only count in southern Ontario that has no house sparrows, no starlings and no pigeons, which is just an amusement thing to say to other birders,” he said.
A permanent species of the park, the spruce grouse, was also missing from the count, but Tozer doesn’t think that means the birds have left.
“They’re hard to find, I mean 79 people were out all day and they couldn’t find even one,” he said. “That’s because they’re well camouflaged and their whole strategy to avoid predators is to hide well in coniferous trees and they’re good at it. So some years we just can’t find any.”
However, the bird count observers did spot four great gray owls and one northern hawk owl during their trek. These owls are mainly found in the boreal forest and are not common in the park.
“Very few counts in southern Ontario will have either of those species and certainly not in those numbers,” said Tozer. “They come south occasionally when their food source, which is small mammals, fails in the boreal forest. … They come south because staying in the boreal forest and starving is not as beneficial as flying south.”
The bird count is an international program of the National Audubon Society, which sees about 60,000 volunteers across North America participate in the event from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5 each year.
The first count was done in 1900 on Christmas day as a replacement activity to the “side hunt” where people shot as many birds as they could.
The group with the largest number of dead birds won. Famed ornithologist, Frank Chapman, recognized declining bird populations could not withstand the hunting and suggested counting birds on Christmas day rather than shooting them.
Tozer has been compiling the bird count data since it began at the park in 1974.
In April 2012, the Friends of Algonquin Park published his book, Birds of Algonquin Park, which includes all of the Christmas counts data. The book acts as a fundraiser for the friends. The park is a great place to see winter birds said Tozer, who noted there is a weekly bird report on the park’s website, www.algonquinpark.on.ca.
He said the visitor centre is a good place to see many of the species at feeders.
“People can come out and get a close up look at some of these birds,” said Tozer. “And this year, because of these rare owls being around, there’s a chance of seeing them too.”