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Invitation To Observe - Ontario's Breeding Bird Atlas

Updated: Jun 27, 2022

The word “atlas” is a rather dry term. It brings to mind a collection of maps collated into a travel guide or a dusty compendium pulled off the library shelf once a year. Or at least that's what I thought when I first started as a volunteer for the Breeding Bird Atlas Project for British Columbia in 2008. The difference is that a Breeding Bird Atlas maps birds in the province—their distribution, abundance, status of rare and colonial species and in particular, where birds reproduce. It only took a few weeks into the project for me to realize how much fun this was going to be. Ontario’s third Bird Atlas project started last year and I was ready to jump right in! Massive volunteer-driven, long-term surveys like this have already been done in other US states and Canadian provinces. The five years of data collected here from 2021-2025 will be compared to future census data when this Atlas is repeated in yet another twenty years. Results are interactive and online. The introduction page may be found here:

Field work done by me and other volunteers helps determine the breeding or reproductive status of bird species and is entered into a huge database. Observations are categorized into four levels, with increasing confidence of a bird’s stage of nesting. Instead of seeing a bird and just ticking off the name on a checklist, I really have to look, sometimes for an extended, fidgety length of time, to ask myself, “what is this bird doing?”. Does its behavior match one of the categories listed in the Breeding Evidence Codes? Is breeding "Possible", "Probable", "Confirmed" or just "Observed" with no behaviour evident.

Personally, bird atlassing offers me a license to explore, an invitation to observe and an opportunity to contribute to the knowledge of birds in our province. It inspires me to learn how become proficient in interpreting Google Earth maps for habitat clues and as a collateral bonus—it helps me become a better birder and bird photographer. Hours of observations instill a greater patience for watching (the opposite of twitching!) and can translate into interesting behaviour photographs.

To collect data in an organized fashion, the province has been divided up into a series of grids or 10 x 10 km (100 km2) squares. Although I had heard birders talking about "their" square(s), it’s just a loose assignment, there is no ownership. The reason for assigning squares is to be sure that a minimum of twenty hours is spent covering each square over five years and to ensure someone completes the randomly generated point counts inside that area. Point counts involve visiting 20 numbered dots on a hand held app map from the 40 possible locations. A welcome update from the early days, when GPS proficiency was required. Most points are located along a road and a five more are added in select habitats 100m off-road. Within a five minute period, I count all birds heard and seen, scribbling furiously on a little note pad, binoculars in one hand and eye on the phone timer ticking away on the car hood. Then I enter the info onto the Nature Counts app in a more relaxed setting. For a serious birder, it’s just another incentive to roll out of bed early and visit access points within a few hours after dawn. It’s a welcome opportunity to enjoy that lovely, fresh time of day when most birds are active and singing, wind is light... and traffic is light. Point count info is used to estimate bird density and their habitat preferences.

Last year, I totaled about ninety hours exploring my designated square, from April to late August. As I visited new parts of the province, however, I could add breeding information from any square. If I saw a robin nest-building while vacationing in the Bruce Penninsula, for example, I could submit that as Confirmed Breeding Evidence on the Nature Counts application. The app locator does a quick determination of what square you are in. Nesting season brings some predictability to bird activities, making it so much easier to find them in their seemingly random movements. Early in the season, passerines spend long hours singing, often out in the open or perched high on a branch, offering colorful photo opportunities. The bold males are advertising, so one need only to follow the “music” to find the singer. Singing indicates Possible Breeding Evidence. Once established, males tend not to stray far from their area. A male bird found singing for 7 days in a row on a territory is upgraded to Probable Breeding Evidence. Listening to bird songs repetitively, hour after hour, day after day is a surefire method for learning or improving one’s birding-by-ear skills and it becomes easier to identify a selection of songsters way off in the distance. I even began to tease out and recognize more subtle chip and call notes. Now I can distinguish the sound of a woodpecker flaking bark, or the snap of a flycatcher’s bill as it swoops in to nab a wasp. From atlassing observations, I also learned that birds dump their load just before they are about to fly, so if I was looking for a flight shot, I waited for the whitewash!

As birds pair up and set up territories, exciting interactions between the sexes and disputes between males intensify. I’ve witnessed Spotted Sandpipers entwined in a death grip, a raven pair gurgling sweet nothings to each other and sparrows copulating as a high-wire act. While watching swallows, I clued in that swooping in to pick up a goose feather and riding it around like a broomstick was part of their mating display. As nest building begins, I look for covert rustling movements on the ground, in roadside grass or in shrubs where birds might be breaking off twigs. Early one morning while doing a point count, I was surprised to see the rather uncommon Clay-colored Sparrow pop up with dry grass in its bill, on a wire fence right next to the car. Sparrow nest-building and Killdeer doing a broken-wing distraction display can be upgraded again to the top level of Confirmed Breeding Evidence. The Killdeer is trying to draw an intruder away from an existing nest or young.

The nest area, as a focal point, offers many chances to capture interesting behaviour shots, but it goes with a serious cautionary note. One must take great care to keep a respectable observing distance, so not to interfere with birds’ natural instincts and privacy. If I saw a Chipping Sparrow, for example, in the process of nest building, I take notes, then research the number of days for incubation, and finally return again cautiously when it might be carrying food to nestlings. I’d like to emphasize that it’s not important to pinpoint actual nest locations because behaviours such as birds carrying food or nest material are ample evidence to confirm and note a breeding record. Also, I don't want my interest to be observed by any stealth nest robbers. When possible, I do my viewing from inside my car.

Through atlassing, I’ve been surprised by the discovery of secret habitats and microhabitats, sometimes only a few miles from home. It was a thrill to stumble upon new personal hotspots and rewarding to find species such as Red-headed Woodpeckers in urban edge locations not previously reported. Or hearing the tiny Winter Wren singing its robust, extensive musical tune within a city ESA. One day, I was lucky to witness a Mourning Dove release an egg, but unfortunately it happened right on the deck railing.

The reward at the end of each atlas season is the parade of youngsters, so much goofy-looking cuteness of the next generation! From floppy-necked babies straining to reach out for a grub meal or merganser chicks riding on their parent's back, the bounty and variety is truly "awww-some". By late July, avian activity suddenly turns quiet with the hot dog-days of summer. Birds become more secretive and songs more sporadic, but this is a good time to tag many species with a Confirmed Breeding Code. Some birds like Mourning Doves may even be on to their second brood but American Goldfinches and Cedar Waxwings may have only started their first brood, considered late nesters. The season is winding down and may feel like a bit of a let-down. But not for long, as the magic of fall migration begins and many breeders will soon be marshalling in groups and moving through en masse.

Each day of atlassing and each data set brings personal memories of little success stories. With so many perils and troublesome news items about nature portrayed in the media, I am offered bits of joy with each record of a bird’s quest to renew life. Overall, our provincial Atlasses often conclude with discoveries of new species breeding records and expansion of species range extensions. Areas in the province that had previously been under-birded due to poor accessibility now have a more comprehensive wealth of bird information mapped out. Some intrepid birders even carry their birding skills to collect data while on remote northern canoe trips. Ontario plays a pivotal role in North American bird conservation efforts. I am pleased to be part of the local team effort as a bird detective.

There are still four more years of Ontario’s current atlas ahead! For anyone interested in getting involved in our area, please look at the project’s overview on the website listed in the first paragraph and/or contact George Prieksaitis or Pete Read, coordinators for Region 4.

Photos from Top:

- Mourning Dove laid an egg on the deck railing. Couldn't find any nearby nest, so put it on the ground and a fox pup ate it.

- Male Spotted Sandpipers displaying over territorial rights.

- Female cardinal carrying nest material

- Male Dickcissel belting out a song

- Song Sparrow parent feeding a cowbird chick (nest parasite)

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