Migrating birds take a layover on the Ottawa River

November 20, 2012

Community Happenings

Story and map by Sarah Petz

Photo by: Susan Wilkes

Ottawa area birdwatchers relish this time of year when the Ottawa River becomes a migratory home for birds making their way from the Hudson Bay area to the St. Lawrence Seaway.

For Jeff Skevington, a local avian enthusiast, the freezing temperatures at this time of year mean more opportunities to bird watch along the Ottawa River.

“Every year, Hudson Bay starts to freeze up, it freezes from the top end down. Birds are trapped in that southern end of Hudson Bay and then to get out they fly overland until they hit the Ottawa River, and then they move along the Ottawa River to the St. Laurence,” said Skevington.

“It’s pretty fabulous. By far our best birding month for rarities is in October and November because of that Hudson Bay effect.”

October is really the peak but it’s still very exciting right now as  you don’t really know what is going to turn up,” said Skevington.

For many Ottawa birdwatchers, the love of the hobby grew from a childhood curiosity about nature, and developed into a lifelong fascination with anything and everything avian.

Skevington’s love of bird watching blossomed at the age of eight, when he spotted — while walking to the post office — an owl.

“I ran back to my parents’ house and got one of my parents’ guides. I started birding that day, getting bird feeders and taking notes on everything I was seeing,” he said.

Forty years later, Skevington’s interest has never waned.

“That opened my eyes, when I was eight years old, to the fact that all this stuff was out there,” he said. “Every day there are new discoveries, and I guess I’m turned on by the fact that every day I can learn something new.”

The Ottawa area is home to hundreds of avid birdwatchers, making it easy for those wanting to join the activity to find a birding partner, explained Iain Wilkes, a long-time birdwatcher who also serves as the eastern regional director of Ontario Nature.

Photo by: Susan Wilkes

Wilkes suggested new birders seek out groups such as the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club, which helps coordinate birding activities in the city through its birds committee.

“The good thing about the Ottawa area is that there are lots of people of various ages, so you can usually find someone of the same age that you can go out with,” Wilkes said.

At 62, Wilkes has been bird watching for over five decades. He said the appeal of birding goes beyond simply observing birds in their natural habitat.

“It is a really good way to learn about the environment you’re living in,” he said.

“It’s not just about birds. I think they’re an excellent indication about what’s going on around us in terms of our environment, and getting a connection with nature and how things work.”

Skevington also suggested new birders check out online databases such as eBird.org, which allows users to record the birds they see, look up information on a variety of species, and share their observations with other members of the site.

For those hard-core birders looking to identify rare species, Bryce Hoye, who has worked as a field biologist studying birds across Canada, recommended learning to recognize birds by the their song, which can be a much more accurate method of identification.

To develop this skill, Hoye recommends using Dendroica, an online tool developed by Environment Canada that allows users to view pictures of a variety of species from around the world while listening to their calls.

Hoye pointed out that audio identification is not an easy skill to develop, but can allow you to identify a wider range of species in the field.

“It kind of leaves you if you don’t practice it consistently,” he said.

However, even if you can’t identify rare species, simply observing birds in their natural habitat can be just as satisfying, Hoye said.

“I find it’s just fulfilling to get out there. You don’t necessarily have to see rare species. It’s just nice to go out there and sort of connect with nature.”

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About Sarah Petz

Saint John based journalist

View all posts by Sarah Petz


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