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What was London’s “Bird of the Year”?

Through 2021, London birders celebrated the Northern Cardinal, as well as sightings of Spotted Towhee, Harlequin Duck, Swallow-tailed Kite, Cattle Egret, and others. What was your top bird? Paul Nicholson gave the nod to this Blue Grosbeak that stopped over in north London in May.

The end of the year is an obvious time for London bird watchers to reflect back on a year of bird sightings. Through all of 2021, we have again been limited by the global pandemic. Ontarians started the year in a state of emergency and through the spring we endured another lockdown. Though May there were no festivals to attend, but the birds still flew, and local hot spots continued to attract us.

The Northern Cardinal certainly had a moment. In June 2021 this beautiful songbird was declared the City of London’s official bird. This followed an online vote that had more than 6,000 Londoners casting votes. Cardinals continue to impress us into December since this is one of our few birds that don’t migrate.

Any of the other species that were on that official bird ballot might be your pick for bird of the year. Great Horned Owl was one of those birds. Owls are always captivating, even for non-birders. The images of fledging Great Horned Owls snapped by London bird watcher and bird photographer Mary Lou Roberts were put into a short film that has been widely shared by media and enjoyed by thousands.

Author note: click the links below to open eBird and view photos of described bird sightings (scroll down to near the bottom of the page)

In February, a Spotted Towhee arrived at a backyard feeder in north London. Thanks to the power of eBird, many dozens of London birders were able to observe this bird, while shivering on an adjacent path. It stayed into March.

Another glamourous London bird of 2021 was the Harlequin Duck that settled in by the Huron Street Woods. This was a young male bird that seemed to enjoy the company of the local Mallards other waterfowl on the north branch of the Thames. The Harlequin was a “lifer” for many of those who came to see it.

Perhaps you appreciate the particular challenges of shorebird identification. If that’s the case, a local Baird’s Sandpiper sighting might have been especially memorable for you. Some London birders will consider the Hudsonian Godwits that touched down for a spell just north of the city in the early fall to be their bird of the year.

The Swallow-tailed Kite seen south-east of the city in September was a “lifer” for many of those who saw the bird. This Kite even continued for a week or so giving many of us a chance to admire it. Another rare bird just a stone’s throw from the Middlesex County border was a late fall Rufous Hummingbird that settled in for a long spell near Watford.

In May at the Kilally Meadows Environmentally Sensitive Area in north London, Eastern Whip-poor-will sightings excited many birders. This is a nocturnal bird that will most often rest on the ground or on a horizontal limb. With a heavily mottled plumage, it is a very difficult bird to spot. Furthermore, it is an endangered aerial insectivore that is on the Species at Risk in Ontario list. To have been able to see one of these birds just roosting in a deciduous tree, apparently oblivious to many dozens of birders, was a real treat.

As the year comes to a close, I will give my “Bird of Year” nod to another bird seen in May at Kilally. A single Blue Grosbeak played hide-and-seek with birders for about a week. This bird, rare for London, attracted people from across Southern Ontario. It was a beautiful bird, and a “lifer” for me. Apart from the wonder of seeing the bird itself, I enjoyed the social buzz that it unwittingly created as well. It took several tries before I laid eyes on the bird, but with each visit, I caught up with fellow birders, many of whom I hadn’t seen in a year or more. It was wonderful that so many people enjoyed this rarity.

Sightings of special birds are especially memorable. They become clearly etched in the mind in a where-were-you-when kind of way. And I always find them inspiring. They make me eager to get out with my binoculars again tomorrow and through the coming year.

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