Effort = Results
In principle the goal of seeing 250 birds in Ontario in a year should be achievable. You just need to expend a lot of effort looking, and make sure you go to the right places at the right times.
I did spend a lot of time looking, and largely in the right places, and lo and behold, hit the magic 250 mark on June 26th with a Least Bittern in the Moscow Marsh.
Having thus set a low standard and achieved it, I could have justifiably hung up my metaphorical skates for the year. But, you will be shocked to hear, I didn’t. The new goal became “how high can I go?”
There are a number of reasons for pushing on. In no particular order:
- The forward-thinking reason. Someday I will do an official Big Year (300 birds) so all the effort put into finding birds this year and the lessons learned will pay dividends in the future.
- The practical reason. I will be out birding anyway so why not focus on birds I can add to the list?
- The nefarious reason. Once I stop birding three or more days a week I might have to do more of the useful but tedious things on my task list.
So, bird on it is!
However, the salient point about passing the 250 mark is that by then I had seen all the readily-seeable birds. Further progress would require not only continued effort, but also greater focus on planning where and when to see the missing birds. So the new equation is:
Effort + Homework + Good Company + Luck = Results
Homework is a key aspect that separates serious birders from people who like to look at birds. The ability to recognize the 291 species that (allegedly) breed in Ontario, in all their various plumages (juvenile, breeding, non-breeding) comes from many hours of studying field guides and websites. Having started later in life and spent most of my birding time in the UK, I had a lot of catching up to do, but I have managed to get a reasonable grip on most species. Let’s say B+ in the more common birds, C+ in scarcities, and C with a Most Improved Student award in non-breeding warblers.
Knowing when and where to look for specific tricky species used to be in the realm of ancient lore, knowledge built up over a lifetime of birding and shared sparingly. The digital world has changed that, and we now have resources like E-bird that can help us narrow down the dates and sites where birds are likely to be seen.
But it also really helps to have additional sets of eyes at that time and place, especially if those eyes belong to better birders. Good company can skew the odds in your favour.
Still, for all the homework and effort you and your companions put in, the bird has to decide to (a) go to the anointed place at the anointed time, (b) be in a part of that place that is accessible to birders, and (c) make itself visible. This is where the perfidiousness of certain species comes into play. Nelson’s Sparrows, for example, typically pass through Southern Ontario in the first week of October. They favour wet, weedy reedbeds, where they skulk like mice and mostly refuse to show themselves. So luck is a key factor in the later parts of the year.
How lucky have I been? Herewith an annotated list of birds seen and not seen since bird #250:
251 – Northern Bobwhite. 27 June near the Moscow Dump. Very scarce bird. Sheer luck.
252 – Eastern Whip-poor-will. 3 July, Prince Edward County. The birds had been calling for a few weeks along a remote country road. Homework + effort.
X – Chuck-will’s-widow. Prince Edward County. Calling near the Whip-poor-wills for a few weeks. Last heard the night before I went looking for it. Lack of effort.
253 – Little Blue Heron. The bird had been present for a few days. I was visiting family in the Toronto area so it was only a two-hour drive, and the bird made itself visible. Effort and Luck.
X – Yellow-crowned Night Heron. Cambridge. Had been seen well in the river for a week or more. The first day that it didn’t show up was the day I visited. Bad luck, but a consolation prize for effort in recognition of the THREE AND A HALF HOURS I spent standing on that bridge. At least I got to practise some birds-in-flight photography.
254-255 – Red Knot, Baird’s Sandpiper. 26 August, Presqu’ile. Good shorebird habitat during peak migration. Homework + effort.
256 – Western Sandpiper. 26 August, Presqu’ile. Rare migrant. Luck (the bird was there) and good management (birding with a guy – Jon Ruddy – that could actually recognize a Western Sandpiper).
257 – Pectoral Sandpiper. 3 September, Morven. Good shorebird habitat during peak migration. Effort and homework. And a bit of luck as Pectoral is not a typical bird for this site.
258 – Short-billed Dowitcher. 5 September, Brighton. Effort (it was at the end of a long, hot day) and good company. Bill Gilmour mentioned that the sewage lagoon was worth a look as they had cut back some of the reeds; Jim Thompson identified the bird while my dehydrated brain was still trying to process it.
259 – Great Kiskadee. 15 September, Rondeau Provincial Park. Good company (my friend and birding mentor Paul Mackenzie), gold star for effort (we left Kingston at 0100 hours for the six-hour drive), major luck, as a few minutes after we left the bird disappeared, never to be seen again.
260 – Snowy Egret. 15 September, Roberta Stewart Wetland. Easiest bird of this list. Seen as we drove into the parking lot. A few marks for effort – after seeing the Kiskadee we took the time to check Ontbirds for any other rare birds in the area.
261 – American Pipit. 19 September, Wolfe Island. Out on our weekly trip with the North Leeds Birders. Jim Thompson spotted the well-camouflaged bird. Good company.
262, 263 – American Golden Plover, Buff-breasted Sandpiper. 23 September, Presqu’ile. I knew that American Golden Plover and (occasionally) Buff-breasted Sandpiper are seen on Gull Island at this time of the year. I picked a non duck-hunting day when the weather looked promising and waded across to the island. Both birds were present – the Buff-breasted Sandpiper being one of only five sightings in the province this year. So gold star to me for homework, effort and luck!
264 – Purple Gallinule. 27 September, near Harrow. A long-staying rarity, but very hard to find as it skulked in the reeds. Effort (two and a half hours staring into the reeds) and good company (Paul, plus the young fellow who eventually tracked it down and immediately alerted the other birders on the site).
265 – Great Horned Owl. 27 September near Kingsville. We stopped to plot a course on the GPS and there it was, sitting on a wire. Sheer luck.
266 – Tufted Titmouse. 29 September, Ojibway Prairie Complex. Seen on a field trip during the Ontario Field Ornithologists Convention. The bird was known to be in the area. The trip leader, Peter Read, managed to point them out and we had decent looks as they flitted by. So effort, for driving to Leamington for the second time in a month, and good company. But also low cunning. They needed to split the group into two but we resolutely stayed with the best birder and it paid off. Pauvre Pauliina and Margaret did the “right” thing, went with the less-skilled guide, and didn’t see the bird.
267 – Red-necked Grebe. 12 October, Barrie. I had already made a plan to travel to Etobicoke in late October, when these birds are known to gather before migrating further south. But we saw several whilst looking for the target bird – Pacific Loon. Luck.
268 – Pacific Loon. 13 October, Barrie. A bird of the West Coast, but for reasons known only to themselves two or three birds show up in Barrie in mid-October every year to join the thousands (!) of Common Loons feasting on Emerald Shiners. So homework and effort, but especially good company – Jon Ruddy and the rest of the Eastern Ontario Birding collective.
269 – Yellow-billed Cuckoo. 13 October, Colonel Sam Smith Park. The bird had been seen by several other birders but managed to elude us for a while. When we noted a suspicious flitting of wings we got all field-crafty and snuck forward. Bruce spotted the bird skulking in a tree, and while we were spying on it it suddenly leapt out, nabbed a Wolly Bear caterpillar on the path and sped off. Luck and good company.
270 – Orange-crowned Warbler. 13 October, Colonel Sam Smith Park. A late-migrating warbler, predictable at this time but often hard to find. Luck and good company.
So all the Effort/Homework/Good Company/Luck factors played their part, with luck perhaps the most important. At this point there are maybe five birds left that I can reasonably hope to see in the last months of the Biggish Year. Let’s hope the luck holds out!
Ontario 2018 Bird Count – 270
2018 Jon Bubb Birding Beer Challenge beer count – 204
Days left to try new beers – 77. New beers needed: n , where n = (270 + further new birds seen) – 204. Hmmm. Greater effort required.
 Cinnamon Teal is listed as a breeding bird on the Ontario checklist. E-bird shows a total of one reported bird in Ontario in the last ten years.
 And why, one wonders, does Ontario permit duck-hunting in a Provincial Park…?