Today’s article comes from our bird record specialists, Area Ecologist Ed Morris and Area Operations Technician Rebecca Rogge.
The birds are interesting. Most are visually striking, with notable ridges that match their bright feathers.
They are also very important.
Birds contribute to the health of our environment. They disperse seeds, pollinate plants, and help control insect populations.
They also have direct and indirect effects on human health and well-being.
The medical community recognizes the health benefits of spending time with nature, and for many people, their connection to the natural world comes through birds.
A magnolia warbler from Lake Wakami Provincial Park. This is one of the many species that hibernate in Central America or the Caribbean.
Monitoring birds in a huge network of protected areas: why, what and how?
Birds are excellent sentinels of environmental changes.
They are relatively easy to observe and document. If we see declines in one or more species, it leads us to ask “why?”
Is it a reflection of the overall health of our environment? From its wintering area? From their migratory route? If so, how can we improve the situation?
Your visit to the park funds the monitoring and protection of the birds.
Did you know that 100% of the proceeds from reservations and purchases are reinvested in parks?
Thanks to increased visitation in recent years, Ontario Parks has had the opportunity to support more projects and research, including key bird community monitoring and restoration projects in parks and conservation reserves.
Ontario Parks is currently participating in its third Breeding Bird Atlas initiative for the period 2021-2025.
The objectives of the Atlas are ambitious: to study breeding birds in all regions of the province and evaluate the population status and reproductive success of approximately 300 species.
It makes perfect sense for Ontario Parks to coordinate, support and contribute to this well-organized initiative at the provincial level!
Volunteers conduct much of the Atlas surveys. In fact, it may well be Canada’s largest community science project!
However, while most of Ontario’s population is located in the south, protected areas in northern Ontario cover million hectares.
The north is also such a food-rich environment that it is he Destination of migratory birds. So how will we ensure that the north is properly studied?
It will not be possible to inspect every square kilometer in the northern protected areas.
Left: Most of Ontario’s population is from the south, so most of the volunteer effort is concentrated in southern Ontario and rural areas. Right: Ontario Parks northeast priority squares (green and purple squares) for breeding bird surveys are distributed across each region of the breeding bird atlas (pink boundaries)
Within each region, we selected specific 10×10 km squares that overlap with protected areas, which also contain roadless areas, and yet are accessible to surveyors traveling by water, hiking trails, or transportation.
Find experienced birders
To ensure we get good information about breeding birds, Ontario Parks encourages enthusiastic and experienced birders to conduct surveys in provincial parks and conservation reserves.
Experienced birders can ask about fee reductions at under-studied parks in exchange for an atlas.*
These tend to be the most remote parks in the north.
In some remote and little-studied locations, volunteers from Ontario Parks or Atlas host special events known as “Square Bashes.”
They are open to anyone interested in birdwatching and the Atlas, including beginning birders.
Contact Atlas for more information!
*Not all requests can be accommodated and it takes time to review them. Plan ahead! Contact your Atlas Regional Coordinator for more information.
Dedicated staff and resources
In 2022, Ontario Parks has hired two resource technicians to conduct bird surveys in northern protected areas, particularly focusing on off-road surveys.
Once the bird breeding season is over, these personnel move on to other forms of ecological monitoring and resource management activities, such as invasive species management.
So what is a day in the life of a bird monitoring technician like?
Resource manager Rebecca Rogge gives us some insight.
A point count is a specific protocol in which you silently listen and observe birds in a predefined location for five minutes.
This year I worked in Lake Wakami Provincial Park and Missinaibi Provincial Park.
Most days between May and mid-July began with waking up at 5:00 am to prepare for the day. The rest of the park staff were happy that the coffee was already prepared when they got up!
We were usually out the door between 6:00 and 7:00 a.m. “Bird O-Clock” was the peak singing period between sunrise and 10:00 a.m.
Our morning consisted of traveling to predetermined survey locations. Once there, every bird we saw or heard within a five-minute period was recorded before moving on to the next site.
While we listened and took notes, we also made stereo recordings using a portable recorder. If we missed something or were unsure about a particular species, we could refer to the recording if necessary.
Out of the ordinary
We travel to many places not visited by the public. Getting there required advanced preparation and an intrepid spirit.
Safety always came first.
Sometimes we had to wait until the fog cleared, until there was enough light to see in a dense forest, or to be able to see sandbanks if we were traveling over water.
Wind, temperature, heavy rain, thunder and lightning also affected our schedule.
Would you choose to walk through this?
Some forests were extremely dense, while in others storm damage (e.g. blowdowns) created obstacle courses of fallen logs. Navigating these areas required a high level of old-school map and compass skills. It was a slow process and easy to reverse.
However, birds thrive in many types of environments.
If we only visited the easily accessible places, we would not be documenting the full range of species present in parks or conservation reserves!
At Lake Missinaibi, for example, mourning warblers and Canada warblers seemed delighted by the disturbance created by a tornado that leveled part of the park in 2015.
In the wild, tree swallows and grackles often nest in cavities in standing dead trees flooded by beaver ponds.
Studies in marshes, swamps, bogs and marshes required us to wear rain boots or wellies.
We had to test our balance every step of the way to avoid becoming one of those swamp mummies that archaeologists are so excited about!
Mosquitoes and black flies have to be experienced to be believed, but preferably from inside a bug jacket. There was really no escape.
Being two places at the same time
After the morning point counts were completed, we traveled to additional sites to set up automated recording units (ARUs).
These were programmed to make five-minute recordings many times a day, from a few hours before sunrise to a few hours after. They began recording again shortly before nightfall until a few hours later.
Field plan of bird study sites in Missinaibi Provincial Park. Atlas staff selected the green dot survey locations. Ontario Parks selected additional blue dot locations to ensure a wide variety of habitats were studied. The different colors on the map represent different types of habitat. The shaded areas are the locations most affected by the 2015 tornado. Rebecca and other Ontario Parks staff completed these surveys in early July.
These devices effectively allow us to listen in more than one place at a time during the breeding season.
However, they are also beneficial for capturing information on nocturnal birds such as Whip-Poor-Wills, Common Nighthawks, Owls, and hard-to-find marsh birds.
Jeremie Lewis installs an ARU in Lake Wakami Provincial Park
They can also gather information about northern amphibians, as many frogs and toads also sing in the wetlands. We’ve even recorded wolves howling!
Early shifts mean finishing mid-afternoon and sometimes enjoying a nap or exploring these amazing places.
It also allowed me to visit the local grocery store, which closes too early for most park staff.
Common loon with chick. A telephoto lens was used to minimize disturbance to the birds.
In my free time, I continued to revisit bird hotspots with my camera to improve records of waterfowl and nesting birds.
Wondering how you can contribute?
Visitors and community scientists are the backbone of the Breeding Bird Atlas. We encourage all interested parties to visit our northern parks and submit their birding observations.
Can’t go out to watch but still want to support Atlas? 100% of the proceeds from reservations and purchases are reinvested in parks. This reinvestment includes the financing of this important work.
Whether you’re a new or experienced birder, you too can contribute to the Breeding Bird Atlas! Ready to join the ranks? Learn more about the Breeding Bird Atlas to get started.
Special thanks to Rebecca Rogge for providing photographs for this article.