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The numbers don't lie

by Geoffrey Carpentier

Every May, I honour a pledge to myself, to go out and raise money to help our Canadian birds, as they struggle with climate change, habitat loss, pollution, predators, disease, cats, and more. I’ve been doing this long enough to feel something is desperately amiss.

First the good news, through many generous donors, so far I’ve raised $2,630. Oversight for this money is managed by Birds Canada, as it has been since the start of this annual fundraiser. The $168,000 raised by all birdathoners this year will be used for conservation focused projects across Canada.

As always, my friend Peter staunchly supported my efforts, as we traversed Durham Region and the Carden Alvar, near Kirkfield. Our strategy had many facets, raise money, find birds, identify the different species, record the number of birds seen, and stay awake for 24 consecutive hours! Our route is well-defined now, with only moderate adjustments made annually, to accommodate new findings of where certain species are being seen. We visited 17 different locations, including: Darlington Provincial Park, McLaughlin Bay, Cranberry Marsh, North Walker Woods, the Ganaraska, Wylie Road in Carden, Cannington and Port Perry lagoons. Each spot was specifically chosen, as it promised different species of birds. To achieve success in this type of ‘chase,’ one must plan carefully and find out what’s being seen and where. Thanks to some local birders, we were fed current information which greatly assisted our quest.

So how did we do? We recorded about 4,000 individual birds representing 151 species. Ten percent were waterfowl, 6 percent sandpipers and birds of prey, and 13 percent were warblers. Sounds impressive, but what it doesn’t show is how poorly represented some groups of birds were. Only 49 individual flycatchers, of six species, were found. When the environment was healthier, this number would have been in the low hundreds. Swallows were perhaps the most shocking, with only 102 individuals representing the six species found here. The depressing part was, of these, two species were represented by only one individual each. Most of these species are colonial nesters, so one would expect to find several hundred, at a single colony of Bank Swallows, in a healthy ecosystem. We had only 46 of them in total. Grassland birds, like the Grasshopper, Vesper, Savannah and Field Sparrows, meadowlarks and Bobolinks were way down in numbers, with 41 individuals recorded total. Common species, of locally nesting warblers, were almost entirely represented by single digit numbers as well. Thirty-nine of the 151 species we recorded were represented by a single individual; wow!

So was this just a bad day or did we simply do a poor job? First of all, the survey we do is partly scientific but not entirely, as we are moving rapidly between habitats, seeing what presents itself in front of us. That is the ‘list building’ part of the exercise. Then, seeing and recording as many individuals as we can is the science part. Chances are we will see some unusual stuff and also we will miss some commons birds. This always happens. So the fact we missed the Loggerhead Shrikes, who nest in Carden, doesn’t mean they weren’t there; it just means we didn’t observe or hear them when we were there. However, some species are reliably found in certain locations, year after year, so we don’t generally miss them. So we can judge roughly how they’re doing by the number we report. That’s where the numbers of declining species, noted above, comes in, fewer swallows, flycatchers, thrushes, vireos, warblers, etc.

A group of birds which is tougher to analyze is the shorebirds. Sandpipers are migratory and come in waves which are weather dependent, so one year we might see hundreds, like we did last year, and the next very few, like this year. This doesn’t mean their numbers were down; they just weren’t there when we were. I know this is a gloomy column, but I think a necessary one. We can't forget or ignore our actions, so, to offset them we have to do what we can, when we can. If you’d still like to donate to my fundraiser, please go to this secure link

Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line, on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.

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