It is Spring and a new season begins!
It is usually around this time of year that new blog posts start to appear from the Cabot Head Research Station, with the same mix of regularity and unpredictability of bird migration. Normally, our 15 mist nets would be up-and-running by now, a happy and dedicated little crew would rise before dawn, eagerly scanning wide skies, the big bay, and brown woods for signs of bird life. Our ears would be alert, waiting for the chip of the first Yellow-rumped Warbler or the loud croak of a resident Common Raven. As in times past, we would endure the vagaries of a Canadian April, with its sunny days followed by snow squalls, with the hardy Tree Swallows being here one day and gone the next, playing the migration yoyo. But days would grow longer, anticipation would grow stronger, and diversity would grow richer.
That is if, IF, 2020 were a normal year, if there were no closures, no stay-at-home injunctions, if we were not living through a global pandemic. So, as you all probably already know, it was with a heavy heart that BPBO board came to the sad but logical decision to cancel the Spring banding season until further notice. And it is with an even heavier heart that I am not writing these lines at my beloved Cabot Head, in what would have been my 15th season. But alas!
However, it really is the tiniest of tragedies in a time with many tragic stories coming from around the world. BPBO is not alone in closing its research station: even Long Point Bird Observatory will not run a 2020 Spring season; the first time in its 60 years of existence. Across the world, it is the same story: https://www.audubon.org/news/for-scientists-who-study-birds-spring-without-precedent.
Nonetheless, the closed Canada-United States border should not affect the birds and we can expect, in these most abnormal times, a “normal” migration, bringing back in a heady rush of expectations and surprises, all “our” Summer visitors following a seemingly timeless and well-tuned partition. As it is, I am sheltering in southern Bruce Peninsula, allowing ready access to country roads, on which I can practice the suddenly prominent art of “patch-birding” (https://blog.aba.org/2015/09/open-mic-the-joys-of-patch-birding.html). It is as simple as visiting the same area over and over and getting to know the local birds (very) well. It is, of course, what we have been doing all these years at Cabot Head, although in that context we call it migration monitoring! (And of course, in the latter case, we have protocols to follow that are more rigorous than those of your typical patch-birder, I should quickly add)
That said, I have selected a 3.5km route to follow every morning, where I will carry out a census, recording every bird heard or seen, and will duly enter all the data into eBird (perhaps the biggest citizen science project there is), starting whenever I’m ready each morning (!), as opposed to the strict one hour after sunrise at Cabot Head. My path leads me through open fields, pasture and wet meadows, over a creek, into flooded forest, and ends at a beaver pond tucked against the first rise of the escarpment. Habitats are much more diverse than at Cabot Head, although I don’t have access to the majestic Georgian Bay as I do when there. It is also much longer than our station census, and indeed, I am not trying to replicate our research here. The goal is much simpler: to keep me busy (read: sane) with a certain sense of purpose and to witness the wonders of migration in a different capacity.
Like so many others, I have lost my job to Covid, so I search solace with Corvids. Hearing the croak of Mr. Raven on a blustering morning, with snow stinging my face and numbness creeping up my fingers, is a joy and an escape. And, with eBird, I know that I am also contributing to an ever-expending database with applications only limited by our imagination (https://ebird.org/science).
I also decided to re-activate this blog, as if it were a “normal” Spring, to share the usual and unusual stories of birds, nature, and the annual renewal of life. In a very, very modest way, I see it as helping us go through our isolated days and upended routines.
Oh my, this is already a long post and I haven’t actually written about what matters the most: birds! So yes, I have been birding for over a week now (collecting observations of 62 bird species) and it has been wonderful and delightful, especially after coming out of a mandatory 14-day quarantine! (What kind of fool goes on a big birding trip in the USA during these times?). The many delights include seeing hardy Eastern Phoebes braving snow squalls, hearing the bugle of Sandhill Cranes, the voice of the marsh, being fooled by the sight of Tree Swallows about the return of Spring, bathing my eyes in the blue of the Eastern Bluebirds. And yes, there was that chip of the first Yellow-rumped Warbler!
I was also surprised to see two Cedar Waxwings on April 20. Looking at eBird data, I realize that this species can even be seen in winter on the Bruce Peninsula. But you see, for me, it is a late-Spring bird, appearing after mid-May. And, indeed, at Cabot Head, there has been only four (4!) observations of Cedar Waxwing before mid-May (before May 17, to be exact): two birds on April 20 and 24, 2014, one on May 3, 2012, and one on May 8, 2005. Cedar Waxwings, in my own personal calendar, are a bird of warmth and long days, when Spring merges into Summer. In fact, this association is so strong that I almost dismissed my first glimpse of the Cedar Waxwing on that April day. I obviously forgot my motto: “always expect the unexpected!” (even when the unexpected turns out to be quite usual).
On that note, I will end the first post of the most unusual Spring season.
Happy patch birding!