I was out of breath as I burst through the door. “Kids, come quick,” I managed to gasp out. “There’s a couple of sandhill cranes in the neighbour’s field!”
My daughter lazily turned the page of her book and, without looking up, said with the patience of youth, “Mom, calm down, we’ve seen them lots of times before.”
I could feel my lecturing voice come on. “Maybe you don’t realize it, but I was 40 years old before I saw a sandhill crane for the first time …”
They both kept reading, clearly unimpressed.
Sandhill cranes, bobolinks, merlins, hooded mergansers, wood ducks, woodcocks — the birds that populate the dreams of birding enthusiasts — all live here, in our midst, cheek by jowl (or should that be beak by fowl?) with the sparrows, blue jays, and house finches that we commonly find in our yards.
Perhaps you have seen them. Perhaps you have made your way out to the marshes of the Ken Reid or Pigeon River Headwaters conservation areas and seen the common yellowthroat or the belted kingfisher.
Perhaps you have climbed the trails of the Windy Ridge or the Fleetwood Creek conservation areas and seen the chickadees come when you call.
Or perhaps you have been to that mecca of birdwatching — the Carden Alvar — in search of the endangered loggerhead shrike. The Carden Alvar, with its unique ecosystem, is a flat limestone landscape. On this vast plain are alvars – places where native grasses and wildflowers grow which are globally imperiled, occurring only in southern Sweden and around the Great Lakes Basin.
The Carden Alvar has almost religious overtones for birders in Ontario — birders like Hendrik Hart, who used to come up five or six times every spring when he was younger.
He would stay at a local hotel and spend every day from 5 a.m. to dusk watching for the rare birds that make the alvar their home: upland sandpipers, blue winged warblers, and the snipe that seemed particularly attracted to the deep and wide potholes on Wylie Rd.
While city-dwellers like Hart have to make a special trip to enjoy the rich birdwatching opportunities of the Kawartha Lakes, those of us who live here have a privilege that many birders can only dream of.
We are able to engage in the slow, patient observation of many species throughout the seasons. Farmers are especially well placed: attentiveness to the weather and the needs of farm animals goes hand in hand with attentiveness to happenings in field, tree line and marsh.
A trip to the barn at dawn and dusk — when birds are most active — creates opportunities to observe bird behaviour day in and day out.
Take those sandhill cranes that failed to impress my children. Joanne Lindsay, who farms in Cameron, can pinpoint the day when the sandhill cranes return to her farm every year. “Their voice is so loud, and projects so far,” she says, “you can hear them long before you see them.
Once you hear them, you need to be patient and you will see them fly over.” Their call is a series of rattling bugle calls, each lasting a couple of seconds and often threaded together.
The sandhill cranes return to nest in the same spot on the edge of the swamp every year, and each year Lindsay knows how many young they have. She also sees them walking amongst the cattle in her pastures.
While the sandhill cranes return each year of their own accord, there are also birds that Lindsay attracts commonly to its feeder: chickadees, house sparrows, downy and hairy woodpeckers, blue jays and cardinals.
And there are a few birds that don’t come to the feeder but that she also listens and watches for: the barn swallows and jenny wren (also known as a house wren), beloved of her late partner Graham.
While it might seem as though those who live outside of urban areas have a better chance at seeing a variety of birds, that isn’t necessarily true. In fact, in this time of sheltering in place due to COVID-19, we all have the advantage of being able to pay more attention to the birds that live in and around our neighbourhoods.
With a bird feeder or two, anyone can see some common birds in their own backyard — even in the bustling metropolis of Lindsay. Eric Davis, one of the directors of the Kawartha Field Naturalists, recommends black oil sunflower seed as a good all-round seed that many birds like, including woodpeckers.
If you put the feeder on a metal pole, with a metal shield part-way up, squirrels will be thwarted from cleaning out your feeder. (Another option is to feed the squirrels — they are fond of peanuts).
Davis has one caution about feeders: it is best not to keep feeding the birds when the trees have leafed out, he suggests. Bears can be attracted to bird feeders, and hawks can hide in the foliage and prey on younger birds.
Davis recommends that you begin by just watching the birds. How do they behave and interact? Note what they look like and see if you can identify them.
Birds that are more common in a built-up environment include starlings, blackbirds, robins, blue jays, house sparrows and sometimes cardinals.
Davis notes that there are merlins in Lindsay. (Merlins are falcons that need a tall perch.) “If there are tall trees nearby, especially spruce, then you may see merlins.”
You might like to keep track of what comes to your yard. If you do that every year, you will have some citizen science about bird population and behaviour in your area.
Another member of the Kawartha Field Naturalists, Robbie Preston, offers a few additional tips to help you identify birds. Take note of what the surrounding habitat is like: if there is water, you may be seeing a shorebird. Birds like warblers like to shelter in shrubs.
In general, there are four great ways to identify birds – size and shape, colour pattern, behaviour, and the aforementioned habitat.
It is also important to pay attention to the time of year, according to Preston. Many birds have brighter and more vivid colouring in the spring than in the summer or winter. And don’t forget that female birds and juveniles are often less colourful than their male counterparts.
It is wise to pay attention to these differences. I myself learned this from bitter experience, spending days trying to identify a drab olive green bird that turned out to be a female American goldfinch, mate of one of the brightest and flashiest birds around.
If you would like to encourage birds to make a home in your garden rather than just visit a feeder for a while, it will be important to take the next step and plant trees and shrubs that will host the insects that birds need to feed to their offspring.
“All those seed-eating birds can’t feed seeds to their babies,” says Judy Kennedy, also a member of the field naturalists and a citizen scientist who contributes observations to the scientific community.
“They have to feed their young caterpillars that have some protein. If you have trees like oaks, maples and pines, more birds will nest in your yard.”
Smaller shrubs and wildflowers that will also attract insects for birds to eat include dogwood, nannyberry, red raspberry, wild bergamot, columbine, goldenrod and asters.
Shortly after my unsuccessful attempt to get my children to view sandhill cranes, we were driving down our gravel road. “Stop the car!” my daughter suddenly shouted. “Back up!” In our family this usually means a bird, so I obeyed — just in time to see a pileated woodpecker moving its way up a dead tree.
It appears there are some birds that are still rare enough to impress my children.