Introducing…IBAs in Ontario Parks!

We’re jazzed to introduce a new series for 2017 — IBAs in provincial parks — brought to you by Ontario IBA Coordinator Amanda Bichel of Bird Studies Canada. If you love birds, you won’t want to miss these monthly features.

Wondering what an IBA is? The acronym stands for “Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas.”

The IBA program aims to identify, monitor and protect the world’s most important sites for birds and biodiversity.

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The secret flight of birds at night

Today’s post comes from Park Biologist Erica Barkley.

As a kid, I always pictured bird migration as Canada Geese flying south in a “V” during the day.

But that changed one calm, clear September evening. A park naturalist pointed out dozens of tiny “peep” noises over our heads. “Those are songbirds,” he said.

“No way!” I said. “Thousands of birds are migrating at night?!”

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Billions travel Ontario’s migration superhighways

Today’s post comes from Brad Steinberg, our Natural Heritage Education and Learning Coordinator. An avid birder, Brad identifies several “migration superhighways” and the role provincial parks play in protecting Canada’s Important Bird Areas. 

Being stuck in traffic sucks. Especially with young kids.

This sentiment recently ran through my head while mired in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Don Valley Parkway in Toronto, Ontario. (My conclusion was reinforced when my son loudly announced his urgent need for a bio-break.)

But as frustrating as highways can be; they are vitally important to us, providing a reliable route from one place to another.

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5 ways to spice up your spring birdwatching

Think birdwatching is limited to sitting silently in the woods for hours on end?

Think again.

From waterway adventures to birding safaris, Canada’s South Coast Birding Trail serves up innovative opportunities to get up-close and personal with more than 250 migrating species.

This spring, follow the feathers to Canada’s migration hotspot and experience birding in a whole new way!

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Birding for beginners – 5 tips for new birders

We’re fast approaching one the best times of the year for Ontario bird-watching. As we move into fall, birds start migrating to their winter homes. Birds to watch for include shorebirds and raptors.

If you’re an aspiring birder — and want to learn more about our feathered friends — here are some tips from Ontario Parks naturalists David Bree (Presqui’ile Provincial Park) and Pilar Manorome (Rondeau Provincial Park) to get you started.
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Noise annoys

How do birds cope with our increasingly noisy world?

The world is a noisy place, and that can pose problems for animals that depend on hearing each other’s sounds to find out about food, predators, and mates. Many species of mammals, birds, fish, and frogs produce louder, longer, or higher-pitch calls in noisy places, to be heard above the noise. But those altered sounds may not be good enough – they may not travel as far or convey the same information as normal songs.

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Soundscapes from across Ontario

One of my favourite signs is from a lookout over the Grand Canyon.  It simply says,

ONE MINUTE.
DON’T READ.
DON’T TALK.
NO PHOTOS.
JUST LOOK…..AND SEE.

It is something that I hope you will do often when you visit our parks or other natural areas in Ontario.  But how about this variation?

TWO MINUTES.
PUT DOWN YOUR PHONE.
DON’T READ.
DON’T TALK.
SIT QUIETLY…AND LISTEN.

And you can do that right now.

Below are some one to two minute recordings of birds and amphibians. Several organizations contributed recordings from across the province.

On these recordings you will hear a multitude of bird, amphibian, and perhaps some insect species. You will even hear wolves in the recording from Ivanhoe Lake Provincial Park!

So put on some headphones, sit quietly, and simply listen to these natural soundscapes.

You may need to increase the volume on your computer or device to hear them properly. Just don’t start at full volume! Download them to your computer or other device if you wish.

How do I survey birds and amphibians?

I Listen.

A trained person can identify bird or amphibian species from their distinctive calls. When I was an intern, I first trained by accompanying a more experienced birder. Now I listen to recordings of bird songs and amphibians calls. It is a skill one needs to practice to maintain.

There are great training apps for computers, tablets and smart phones.  There are also websites, such as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library.

Surveying for birds can be passive or active. In passive surveying, I listen for a five or 10 minute period and record all the species I hear.

However, some species rarely call. For these species I use a portable sound system to broadcast their calls, and wait for a response. Broadcasting calls is a form of harassment, so I do it only a few times at any one site.

We strongly discourage park visitors from broadcasting calls, unless it is a research activity that we have reviewed and approved.

White-crowned sparrow and gray catbird.

Why do I survey birds and amphibians?

Sometimes I just want to know what species occur in our various parks.

Sometimes I am looking for specific birds or amphibians, such as a species at risk.

Which ones are common? Which species are rare?  What kind of habitat do they need?

Over time I could discover population trends that alarm me, comfort me, or even excite me. And sometimes I survey birds for environmental assessments, so that I understand which species may be affected by a new development or restoration project.

Why do birds and amphibians “sing”?

A pair of birds may call to each other as part of courtship behaviour. Birds may call to communicate with other members of their family or flock. However, most of the time it is the males that sing. For them it is all about defending territory and trying to impress a mate.  They are basically saying “This is my land. Keep out!” and “Hey ladies….check out MY colours!”

In songbirds, the song is learned from parents at an early age. For the researcher, young males practicing their ‘voice’ can be misleading. Within some bird species the variation in songs can be interesting, or even frustrating. For example, the American Redstart has several song variations.

American Redstart.

What’s that green box strapped to the tree?

A few years ago I invested in a few automated recording devices. These can be programmed to record at certain times of day, for almost any length of time.  At a minimum it is a 10-minute recording half an hour after sunrise, and a 5-minute recording half an hour after sunset.

These devices increase my ability to survey birds and amphibians. Essentially, they allow me to be in more than one place at the same time.

They may also record things I otherwise would not hear.  Why? Some species know when I am present, and may remain silent or avoid me. But they behave normally if only the device is present, and are more likely to be recorded.

Ivanhoe Lake, setting up a recording device.

I take the device back to the office, download the recordings, listen to them, and record what I hear.  I can listen to the recording as many times as needed. I am much less likely to miss or misidentify a bird than an on-site survey. And if still unsure, I can extract the confusing call and send it to an expert.

Can’t the computer identify the species for you?

Yes, but…

Current computer software may be used to search for calls of specific species, but I would have to train the software to recognize them.

I am interested in recording the entire bird and calling amphibian community, so I have not explored this software capability. Manually interpreting the recordings also ensures that I maintain or improve my ability to identify all species when I am working in a park.

I do use software to help me interpret what I hear, however. The software can help me isolate particular sounds from background noise, or sometimes the sounds of other species. It also produces a graphical representation of the bird’s or amphibian’s song: a sonogram. Different species produce distinctive patterns.

Sit quietly…and listen!

Chestnut-sided Warbler.

After hours of intense listening, interpreting, and tabulating data, I realized I had been mentally dissecting the recording but not really listening.  I “rewound” the recording and just enjoyed it without concerning myself with what species were calling.

So take a few quiet moments, sit back, and listen to these recordings.  You may find yourself transported to another place and time.

Ed Morris
Ecologist, Northeast Zone

Additional recordings supplied by:

  • Evan McCaul, Ontario Parks, Northwest Zone
  • Janet Jackson, Natasha Formsma, Dean Phoenix of MNRF Science & Research Branch (Thunder Bay, South Porcupine)
  • Dr. Lauren Fitzsimmons
  • Dr. Doug Tozer, Bird Studies Canada

Canada jays at Algonquin: winter breeding phenom is underway

Get out your binoculars, cameras, smart phones and pack a baggie full of bread, cheese and raisins. The fascinating world of the winter Canada Jay breeding season is underway at Algonquin Park. And if you’re lucky (as most Canada Jan fans are), these delightfully social birds will feed right off your hand.

“Canada Jays are a fascinating bird,” says retired Algonquin Park naturalist Dan Strickland.  “They are very confiding and quickly learn that people can be a source of food and so they come to people, rather than the other way around. They are often tame and will land on your hands.”

“This visitor to Algonquin Park is delighted to have a wild Canada Jay calmly land on her video camera. Canada Jays in Algonquin are the subject of one of the world’s longest running field studies, part of which involves giving each bird a unique combination of coloured leg bands. These permit it to be individually recognized, even from a distance, as it goes about its business on its large year-round territory in patches of boreal forest.” CREDIT: Gord Belyea

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