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Zero Carbon Footprint Birding

When it comes to ecological footprints, birders are all over the map, sometimes literally.

Some bird enthusiasts are content to admire and study the birds in their neighborhood. The mix of avian species changes with each season and there is no carbon footprint.

Others however turn their passion for birds into a core part of their lives to the extent that it shapes travel plans. This subset of birders may “chase” a rare bird that’s been reported a province away, or they may jet off to watch birds in another corner of the world.

Through 2022, Brett Forsyth is showing the province’s birders that it doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. He is doing the first ever human-powered Ontario Big Year. A Big Year is a bird watching challenge in which a birder tried to see or hear and positively identify as many species of birds as possible in a defined geographic area.

I met Brett at the tip of Point Pelee National Park in Mid-May. It was the heart of the spring bird migration and he had, of course, bicycled there. We were both notching sightings of warblers and other migrants on what proved to be an excellent birding day.

In chatting with him about his exploits, I learned that his home is in Guelph. That has proved to be a handy hub. Lake Ontario is within a day’s ride for him. Getting to Point Pelee or the eastern parts of the province takes more planning, time, and energy. “My planning for this big year took about 18 months.” He told me. “It’s been successful so far.”

He kicked his Big Year off with a bang by biking to see a Mountain Bluebird. I winced when I heard that he had biked 80 km on a very cold day hoping to see a Harris’s Sparrow that had been reported in the Hamilton-area but couldn’t re-find the bird. It really puts other transportation modes into perspective. And Brett has an inspiringly upbeat attitude about both his hits and misses.

After birding at Point Pelee, he cycled east towards his home with more birding along the way such as seeing a rare Eared Grebe at Erieau. Remarkably, by the middle of May Brett had seen 220 bird species.

Brett’s human-powered Big Year provokes a range of responses, from admiration to curiosity. It’s an interesting point of reflection for other keen birders who rely on cars to zip around a region or the province to bird.

Each person does their own calculus in determining what might or might not be too much in terms of trying to view a bird. When the first-ever Canadian record of a Marsh Sandpiper was made known, I did drive up to see it even though it was just one bird and it was a two-hour return trip. The environmental impact of driving to see birds is, however, part of my decision-making process.

In the face of climate change and widespread loss of habitat, it makes sense to consider the impact of all activities – including bird watching – on the environment. A silver lining of the pandemic has been that bird watchers have rediscovered and embraced more local natural areas.

To learn more about Brett’s human-powered Ontario Big Year you can check out or follow his vlog on YouTube. His brief videos include lots of bird footage as well as his own narrative.

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