By Ed Poropat
The 54th Annual Minden Christmas Bird Count was held on Saturday, Dec. 19 with 27 field observers counting throughout the selected area, and a further 31 feeder-watchers carefully scrutinizing their backyard feeding stations. This year, the weather was mostly cooperative, with cloudy skies in the morning, giving way to a light snow in the afternoon. With temperatures hovering near the freezing mark, it was a near perfect winter day to be outside.
Overall, over 124 hours were spent observing, ultimately yielding a relatively clear picture of bird populations in southern Haliburton County during the early winter of 2020. So what do the numbers show us?
Well, as expected, the diversity of species this winter appears to be slightly above average, with a total of 47 different kinds observed on count day, and another two species recorded during count week. The 20 year average is about 45 species. This was expected, largely due to the influx of northern finches such as redpolls and grosbeaks. A relatively warm fall and early winter combined with this movement of northern finches increased the diversity in the region.
Conversely, the total number of individuals counted were significantly down, with only 3,724 individuals recorded (well below the 20-year average of 4,282). This general scarcity of birds in the region can be attributed partially to the lack of food in the woods, especially cone crops. Many feeder-watchers and birders commented on the fact that they had seen many more birds earlier in the winter. Others noted that more birds appeared on feeders during the week after count day. Again, this was somewhat predictable. Although we had a decent influx of finches during the late fall, especially crossbills and siskins, many of these wandering flocks simply cleared out of the region due to the lack of natural food. Presently, these species are frequenting areas south of the Canadian Shield, where they are not commonly observed (much to the delight of birders down there!).
The surge of observations on feeders after the count was also expected, as snowfalls and ice covered many food sources, especially weedy fields. This forced local birds to feeding stations. Whether some of the decrease in numbers is actually attributable to declines in species numbers remains to be seen, and will only be apparent over the long term.
Once again, there were a few highlights during count day, as is always the case. Although no new species were discovered for the count this year (it presently sits at 108 species), there were a few notable sightings. One intrepid team was up early to survey for owls and discovered a calling long-eared owl. This was only the second record for the Minden Count. Other owls were also well represented this year, probably buoyed by the healthy rodent populations. 8 different barred owls were observed, tying the count record. A great horned owl was also heard hooting during the pre-dawn hours.
Another nice find was a red-bellied woodpecker that was frequenting feeders in Minden. Although it was only the third count record, it is a species that is increasing both its range and abundance. It will likely become a regularly occurring resident in the Minden landscape. A secretive Northern goshawk, hunting along the Milburn Road, thrilled birders there, as this species is not often observed in the area. A female wood duck, a rare bird in Haliburton County during the winter, was observed with Mallards both before and after the count, but could not be found on the 19. A couple of hardy American robins made use of the abundant fruit trees in and around Minden.
Some bird species appear to be doing very well. Count records were set for both mallard (425) and rock pigeon (292). A quick walk through downtown Minden on any day of the year will testify that the latter species is showing strong breeding success there. Northern cardinals have also had a successful year. There were many observations of this species in late October and November around Haliburton County, and several have decided to spend the winter in the region. A total of six birds were found on count day, falling just below the record of seven. Despite relatively low numbers of American tree sparrows and dark-eyed juncos this winter, the high ehite-throated sparrow totals were a pleasant surprise (three). The open water along the Gull River has encouraged four belted kingfishers to overwinter. This also ties a count record.
The movement of winter finches in the province is always intriguing, and is intricately tied to the abundance of food across the north. With poor birch seed crops in the boreal region, common redpolls have irrupted into the southern parts of the province. A total of 92 individuals were observed, although many more were likely in the area. Interestingly, they outnumbered both American goldfinches (75), and pine siskins (0). Both pine and evening grosbeaks were present this year. The former species (141) is being regularly observed this winter, especially around fruit trees. The latter species (75) also made an appearance on count day, although many are still wandering around Southern Ontario in search of cones. A single White-winged Crossbill was recorded by one group.
Our resident bird populations seem to be holding steady. Black-capped chickadee numbers seemed down slightly with 1,172 counted. The 20-year average is around 1,362. Although many red-breasted nuthatches vacated the region during the fall due to a lack of cones, the non-migratory White-breasted Nuthatches were abundant. The 135 observed fell just short of a record (141). Woodpecker numbers were about average. Despite the remarkable exodus of blue jays this fall from the province, 417 were still recorded on count day. Most were visiting feeding stations.
Waterfowl were definitely on the move both on and before the 19. The over-wintering five trumpeter swans on Gull Lake were not a surprise, but the single red-breasted merganser at Moore Falls was a nice find late in the day. Other diving ducks were notably absent, as many departed the area due to the frigid temperatures earlier in the week, icing over many of the lakes. Surprisingly, no common loons were found lingering as they often do.
Wild turkey numbers continue to show a strong population in the area. Although many birds seemed to be hiding on count day, we still managed to record 177 individuals within the circle. Although only five ruffed grouse were recorded on the 19, the numbers appear to be on the rise, as many more were reported by observers during the days following the count.
As always, I’d like to thank all the people that participated in this year’s Minden Christmas Bird Count, whether field observers or feeder-watchers. Your sightings not only make this count one of the most successful, but also help contribute to bird conservation across the continent. I wish everyone all the best in 2021 and look forward to your contributions again next December.