Guest Blog Post — Debbie Buehler

Beloved Birders! Here is Birds and Words’ first Guest Post, written by ecologist and writer Debbie Buehler. I first met Debbie almost two years ago when we were both volunteering at the Tommy Thompson Bird Research Station. I was mainly an observer that spring, still too terrified to do anything other than hold a bird in the hand, and even that seemed to send me into semi-spastic rapture (as I’ve mentioned; the natural world is new to me). Debbie, on the other hand, was entirely in her element, extracting, banding, scribing. It was a joy to see. Debbie impressed me with her knowledge about most things avian, her humility, and her deep love of understanding the workings of natural world, which she is diligently and impressively sharing with her children. Here is Debbie’s first foray into one of my favourite December activities — the Christmas Bird Count. Enjoy!

My first Christmas Bird Count brings wonders on the waterfront and in the “wasteland”

Each year, from December 14th to January 5th, something strange occurs. Tens of thousands of volunteers venture into the cold with binoculars and bird books – to count birds. This phenomenon is called the Christmas Bird Count, and this year marks the 115th time it has taken place in the Americas. One hundred and fifteen years of data make an enormous contribution to conservation, and organizations like Audubon use these data to help guide conservation action.

December 14th, 2014 marked Toronto’s 90th Christmas bird count. It was my first.

It is embarrassing to admit that, after years of working in the field as a bird biologist, I finally found time to get involved in the Christmas Bird Count after moving to an administrative “desk job”. The invitation to participate came from my bird census mentor, and fellow volunteer, at the Tommy Thompson Park Bird Research station. How many chances does one get for a morning of freedom, roaming Toronto’s lakeshore with some of the most knowledgeable birders around?

Our team was tasked with Route 13, a narrow strip along the Toronto waterfront running from Parkside Drive in the west, to Coxwell Avenue in the east. We stopped at numerous sites including the West beaches, Ontario Place, the City Center Airport ferry port, Harbourfront, the Sherbourne Common and the Main Sewage Treatment Playground (yes, that is actually the name of a park in Toronto). Over the course of several hours, this route provided us with 35 different species and over 1600 individual birds. Not bad for a rainy morning in December.

My favorite species were the ducks. They hang out in the open, and at this time of year, they are in their most beautiful plumage. Unbeknownst to many of Toronto’s human residents – unbeknownst to me until only a few years ago – the Toronto lakeshore hosts a riot of ducks species in winter. These birds arrive in Toronto from breeding grounds in the Boreal and Arctic regions, just as the migratory songbirds are flying south. A classic example is the Long-tailed Duck (formally known as the Oldsquaw).


Male and female Long-tailed ducks. Photo by Debbie Buehler.

Male and female Long-tailed ducks. Photo: Debbie Buehler.

I first noticed these gorgeous black and white birds several years ago while taking the ferry to the Toronto islands. Looking out at the grey waves on that cold February morning, I suddenly noticed black and white ducks – lots of them! Indeed, the Toronto harbor is home to thousands of these birds, with counts for Route 13 alone above 1000 four times in the last 17 years (though we only had about 350 this year).

On this year’s count we also saw Buffleheads, Common Goldeneyes, Greater and Lesser Scaups, and a smattering of Hooded, Red-breasted and Common Mergansersinterspersed among the Long-tailed Ducks.

But, as much as I loved the ducks, the highlight of the day did not come along the water’s edge (not even with two Iceland Gulls). Rather, the highlight came beneath a crisscross of over passes at the confluence of three highways – the Gardner Expressway, the Don Valley Parkway and Lakeshore Boulevard. The veteran’s of the Route 13 bird count know that these places – tiny tracks of weedy and overgrown land – are a refuge for passerine birds. We weren’t disappointed. Amid the steady thrum of traffic we heard Chickadees, and then within minutes, there were also American Robins, Cardinals, a Winter Wren, a Cedar Waxwing, several sparrow species, and an astounding Black and White Warbler – a bird who should have made the journey to wintering areas from Florida to Colombia in September! In past years, other winter rarities like Nashville and Orange-Crowned Warblers had been recorded in this “wasteland”. But the sightings were bittersweet because two of the places that had provided refuge to birds in the past had been bulldozed.

“We had Hermit Thrush here in 2010,” remarked a volunteer.

Not this year.

We speculated about why the land might have been cleared. Towering overhead was a billboard, probably 14 meters wide, advertising “Animal Planet”. Perhaps this “unused” land had been cleared to make way for another billboard. I hope not. Perhaps the land was cleared in preparation for the naturalization of the mouth of the Don River project. I hope so, though I wish the land had been left as useful habitat a little bit longer.

Hopefully the newly built Corktown Common lying just to the north will provide shelter for birds in the future. Over 700 trees have been planted there and that park makes me proud of my city. But for now those trees are small, and they are of little use to the birds that once took refuge in the bulldozed “wasteland”.

For now, there are no animals on the peeled land beneath the “Animal Planet” billboard – except us humans.


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