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The birds are back in town

By Michelle Poirier [1]

BELLEVILLE – Bird watchers in Belleville are getting ready for the annual Christmas Bird Count on Dec. 27. On that day, bird lovers get together and count as many birds as they can.

John Blaney, a naturalist, will head up the count. He’s compiled the numbers since it started 13 years ago.

The boundary for this year’s count is a 24 kilometre circle centred on Belleville City Hall.

The purpose of the Christmas Bird Count is to keep track of the populations of birds. Last year, counters spotted nearly eight thousand birds from more than 50 species on counting day.

Blaney explained the day is important because there are birds – some which nest in the north – that you can’t count during the nesting season because they nest in areas that are inaccessible.

“They do come south and spend the winter with us. So if you count them here, from year to year, you can compare the number of birds of each species and see whether the species is stable, declining, increasing or just what the status is for it,” he said.

Blaney outlined what happens on the actual count day. In Belleville, the boundary circle is divided into 10 areas and each area is assigned to a group of counters. Counters go out, sometimes before daybreak, so that they can see owls and cover the area they have been assigned. They record all the species and the number of birds they see. At the end of the day they gather and tally all the numbers together. Blaney records the weather, the wind, temperature and whether or not the bay is frozen over. He then sends all of the information to Bird Studies Canada and the Audubon Society [2] in the United States.

George Thomson, president of Quinte Field Naturalist [3], is also part of the count. He explained that the count week is 3 days before and 3 days after the actual count day and species seen on those days can also be added to the to the count with a specification that they were found on the count week. Three birds were seen in the count week last year that were added to the numbers. The Great Horned Owl, the Red-breasted Nuthatch and the Carolina Wren were each seen once last year during the week.

“We’ve seen some really interesting birds,” he said.

Top 20 birds seen on the Belleville 2013 count day [4] |Create infographics [5]

Some birds are becoming more common in the area. Both Blaney and Thomson said they assume it’s because of climate change.

“As climate change is happening we’re starting to see…birds we wouldn’t have seen 10 years ago. Yellow-rumped Warblers for example, we counted 7 of those last year,” Thomson said. “Some birds are becoming more common in the winter that weren’t seen before or seen only rarely before.”

Blaney explained that in addition to providing information on the population of species, it can also help give information about what is happening to bird ranges because of climate change.

“What’s being found is that birds are…tending to spend the winter a little farther north then they used to,” he said. “Because there’s less snow cover so there’s more food available. Birds don’t have to go as far south. Birds migrate mainly for food – it’s not so much the temperature that makes them migrate – it’s the need for food.”

There are usually around 15 to 20 counters involved in the event for Belleville but there are many counts across the province and around the world. According to the Bird Studies Canada [6] website there are approximately 126 bird counts in Ontario alone.

“It happens as far south as Equator and as far north as Nunavut,” Blaney said.

Blaney has been involved in different bird counts for decades before he became the compiler of the Belleville count. His interest in birds started in his childhood.

“Well it would have been really when I was a very, very little kid. We lived in the county and I can remember my mother pointing birds out to me and commenting on when birds were appearing. And she always used to feed the birds… I’ve just carried on with that interest,” he said.

Contact John Blaney [7] if you are interested in joining the count.