Thu. Dec 7th, 2023
Square Strokes with the Breeding Bird Atlas

Today’s post comes from Anna Sheppard, Northeast Assistant Ecologist for Ontario Parks.

I admit it No a morning person by nature; If it were up to me, I’d sleep late every day!

But I’m passionate about birds, and for just a couple of months each year, I’m willing to get out of bed at 5:00 a.m. to support the Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas.

Last June, I joined a small group of volunteers who stayed up at dawn for several days in both Grundy Lake Provincial Park and Mikisew Provincial Park to count birds for the Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas.

What then is the Atlas?

The Atlas is a five-year study of approximately 300 species of breeding birds in Ontario, from Pelee Island in the south to Polar Bear Provincial Park in the north, and everywhere in between.

Most of the work on the Atlas takes place between the last week of May and the second week of July (peak breeding season), although several species nest before and after these dates.

person watching birds on the boardwalk

The Atlas is a way to scientifically measure the status of nesting birds throughout the province over time; in other words, how the birds are doing and what is changing.

This is the third Ontario Atlas. The first Atlas was produced between 1981 and 1985 and the second between 2001 and 2005.

Reproductive behavior documented by the project includes singing, territorial display, nest building, and feeding of young, to name just a few examples.

The data collected reveals that some species (such as the bald eagle) have seen incredible recoveries over the past 40 years, while other species (including the common nighthawk) are experiencing serious declines.

mapDistribution of the bald eagle. Data: Atlas of breeding birds
map collageCommon Nighthawk distribution. Data: Atlas of breeding birds

A bird watching party!

Grundy Lake and Mikisew Provincial Parks supported the Atlas in June by providing campsites for “Atlassers” holding a “square party.”

For this project, the province is divided into 10×10 km reconnaissance squares. Using the parks as a “base of operations,” Atlassers surveyed six plazas surrounding each of these parks.

person watching birds

Each square requires at least 20 hours of study, 25 five-minute point counts, and confirmation of about a hundred bird species. The point count data is used to make abundance maps, which show not only where species are present, but also where they are most and least abundant across the province.

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Why do we get up so early?

The “dawn chorus” (when most songbirds sing their hearts out) occurs around dawn, and is the best time to spot them.

After 10:00 am, the birds begin to calm down. So most of the survey work is done between 5:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m.

Chestnut-sided warbler.Chestnut-sided warbler. Photo: Greg Jaski

Our group included very experienced birders, but also involved Atlassers in all areas of the learning curve. Anyone who didn’t feel confident counting five-minute points by ear used a Zoom H2N portable recording unit to record birdsong.

The five-minute recordings were uploaded to be interpreted later in the year by expert birders. Zoom recording units make it possible for any avid birder to contribute top-notch data to the atlas.

The observer becomes the observed.

The highlight of the party at Grundy Lake Plaza? Stopping at a small wetland in the middle of the forest to make a quick bird list.

We didn’t have a full view of the wetland, but we could hear a pair of sandhill cranes calling to each other.

sandhill cranessandhill cranes

We were curious to see them, so we waited a while and soon noticed that one of them seemed to be getting closer and closer to us… as he called out to his partner (we couldn’t see either of them).

Down at the pond, I suddenly noticed a sandhill crane chick (called a colt because of its long, strong legs) swimming on gangly legs across the pond and disappearing into the bushes.

We put two and two together and realized that the adult sandhill crane was coming through the bushes to investigate. us!

Not wanting to further stress the little family (and not wanting to come face to face with an unhappy Sandhill Crane), we quickly retreated to our vehicle and moved on to the next site.

More perspectives from participants

“The highlight was seeing the Ruffed Grouse chicks crossing the street with their mom. When a broad-winged hawk appeared and tried to catch one, the hen began to fly towards the hawk to defend the chicks from her!

– Kaelyn Bumelis, Atlas Deputy Coordinator

ruffed grouseCurly grouse. Photo: Kaelyn Bumelis

“The highlight was getting scolded by a Sora. When I turned my back and walked away, he perked up! It was also great to see a Junco nest for the first time!

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–Donna Ferguson, Atlasser

“While the birds were fantastic, the highlight of the square party for me was the people. It was a privilege to meet some top birders. The enthusiasm was palpable. Spending a couple of days birding with Stan also improved my flora identification skills. Grundy Lake Provincial Park is certainly a beautiful place. I’m glad I brought my canoe and mountain bike to explore it a little more than I would have otherwise. I really want to participate in more square parties.

Canadian Warbler

“As for the birds, the highlight was an Olive Flycatcher that called incessantly for an hour while we had lunch. It had been a long time since he had seen one. Then, as we were driving, I yelled, ‘Stop the car!’ because I heard a Canadian warbler. We managed to get some really good views and a couple of photos too.

“It was a very difficult bird to capture because it moved a lot. One of the standout birds was an Ovenbird carrying food. After everyone went birding early in the morning, I returned to my tent to look for something. The Ovenbird walked in a semicircle around me about a meter from my feet, allowing me to capture it in a 30-second video.”

– Greg Jaski, Atlasser

Participate in our next party!

The two squares events I participated in were a great success, scoring 330 points and over 125 hours of overall atlasing on 12 squares.

Support from Ontario Parks makes working in more remote areas much easier and more productive. We hope to organize more parties in different places in the north next summer.

people watching birds from canoe

If you’re an avid and/or experienced birdwatcher who would like to join a square party next year (and who doesn’t mind getting up ridiculously early and dealing with mosquitoes), contact Atlas for more information.

You can support Atlas anywhere in Ontario, with the greatest need for support being in the north. For more information, contact the regional coordinator for your area.

Red-breasted NuthatchRed-breasted Nuthatch. Photo: Donna Ferguson

There are many squares that could use your help!

Remember: you don’t have to be an expert in birding to make important contributions to the Atlas.

In fact, you may know where some of the most elusive nests are located where you live and perhaps no one else has noticed yet.

Are you planning a visit to a protected area this month? You still have time to contribute to the Atlas!

Submit your observations to the Breeding Bird Atlas through the end of July.