By Ed Poropat
Special to the Times
The 2021 Minden Christmas Bird Count has come and gone. The 55th annual count was held on Saturday, Dec.18. The weather was cooperative in the first few hours of the morning, with light winds, overcast skies, and relatively mild temperatures (-4°C to -1°C) present.
Due to the warm spell in the previous weeks, many of the large lakes remained wide open and ice-free, a perfect scenario for lingering waterfowl. By 10:30 a.m., however, the snow arrived, falling heavily at times. This hampered visibility in the latter part of the day and made driving more challenging.
In addition to these obstacles, most birds sensed the coming storm and found quiet places to ride it out. Finding any birds in the snowy afternoon became a challenge.
Despite this, a record number of 32 hardy field observers participated in the count, providing about 85 total hours of effort. At least 15 feeder-watchers also assisted, providing an additional 25 hours of observation time.
Although data continues to trickle in, at this point the number of birds counted (4,238) coincides almost exactly with the 20-year average of 4,282. A total of 51 species have been recorded so far, plus another three count week birds, well above the average of 45. As predicted, the diversity was relatively high with several winter finches well represented.
So, what did this year’s count reveal? Once again in 2021, most feeder watchers lamented the lack of birds on count day.
Almost all of them commented on the disappointing numbers during the 24-hour survey, despite some busy days at their feeding stations before and after the actual count. This was not a surprise, however, with the combination of a storm system and the abundant food in the woods.
Although somewhat localized, many tree species in our area produced excellent seed crops this past year. Some spruces, tamarack, hemlock and yellow birch all showed signs of a bumper crop in 2021, much to the delight of many hungry finches.
Some field observers noted the exact opposite experience as did feeder-watchers (until the snows arrived), commenting that this was the best winter finch year they could remember. In some portions of the circle, clouds of finches were observed moving between feeding areas. Most abundant were the common redpolls (867) and American goldfinches (354), often in mixed flocks. Among them were smaller numbers of pine siskins (47) and purple finches (6).
Occasionally, the quiet morning stillness was broken by the loud chatter of white-winged crossbills (77) flying overhead. Only a single red crossbill was recorded on count day, although many more are likely present. Evening and pine grosbeaks, so prevalent last year, were generally scarce this winter. Only 18 evening grosbeaks were found on count day, and no pine grosbeaks were seen (although several were observed in the area during the count week).
The extensive open water provided a haven for many lingering waterfowl. This can be both a positive and negative issue for the count. The open water allows birds to remain in the area but spreads them out, making counting and finding them much more challenging. A year with ice covered lakes, on the other hand, concentrates the remaining water birds into small pockets of open water, making them easier to find and count. This year, several common loons (4) have remained in the region. Diving ducks such as common goldeneye (54), hooded merganser (51), and common merganser (28) were all well represented. The five red-breasted mergansers found on Canning Lake were a nice addition to the day’s tally, as were the six buffleheads near Minden (tying a count record). The open water also kept a few gulls in the area. We had a record high count of ring-billed gulls (16) this year, as well as some lingering herring gulls (33). It shouldn’t be long before they depart for the winter.
Because visibility was hampered by the snow, raptors were generally difficult to find. Since they rely on keen eyesight to hunt, they were as hampered by poor conditions as field observers were. Bald eagle numbers were down (4), and only a single red-tailed hawk was tallied. An American kestrel observed on Dec. 16 and 17 could not be re-found on count day. It would have been the first ever recorded on the Minden count.
Some of the birds we see during the winter months are visitors only. Other species such as chickadees, nuthatches, and woodpeckers are resident birds that live in the Highlands year-round. Their numbers seemed generally down, although this may be an artifact of conditions rather than actual population declines. The black-capped chickadee numbers (632) are a bit alarming, however. Observers have noted a general scarcity not only here, but in other regions also. Careful monitoring through multiple counts across the province will be vital in the coming years to ascertain if actual declines are occurring.
The wild turkey numbers (107) were below average on count day, but any local hunter will tell you the numbers are healthy and stable, or even still increasing. On snowy days, they prefer to find shelter and wait out the storm. The same is true of ruffed grouse (11). Although only 11 birds were counted, the population is far stronger this winter than numbers indicate.
As always, one of the interesting aspects of Christmas Counts is the discovery and/or documentation of uncommon or rare species. A varied thrush in 2019 brought hundreds of visitors to our area in search of this vagrant from the west coast. This year was no different as there were several highlights on the count. A single male black-backed woodpecker thrilled several observers near Kinmount. Although commoner further north, this is a genuinely rare bird in the southern part of Haliburton County. A single Canada Jay made a brief appearance near Denna Lake. This is a declining species in our area, almost certainly due to climate change. A pair of red-bellied woodpeckers visiting feeding stations near Minden Lake were the only two recorded on the count. This is a species that is expanding its range in Ontario. More will likely show up in the coming years. One group of observers discovered two cedar waxwings among a flock of bohemian waxwings (17). The latter species is somewhat irruptive, showing up in our area during years of food shortages in the north. The cedar waxwing, although common during the summer, is a good find in the winter months. Two different white-throated sparrows, and a single female northern cardinal added some nice flavour to the overall tally.
However, the bird of the day was undoubtedly the eastern screech owl discovered by one team in the pre-dawn hours, a new species for the count circle, and the 109th species recorded in the 55 years since the count began. This compact, football-sized horned owl is relatively common to the south of us, but is a rare, prized find anywhere on the Canadian Shield. Despite its name, eastern screech owls do not normally screech and instead make a distinctive whinny-like whistle or a quiet trill. They are a treat to hear on a still night!
As always, I’d like to extend my thanks to all the dedicated people that participated in this year’s Minden Christmas Bird Count, whether field observers or feeder-watchers. This count would not be possible without your continued assistance and passion. Our collective efforts help contribute to knowledge of avian populations and conservation across the continent. I wish everyone all the best in 2022 and look forward to your contributions again next December.