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Canada Rare lazuli bunting attracts bird-watching frenzy to Ottawa woman’s backyard

A lazuli bunting is seen at Denise Smith's home in Ottawa, on Feb. 6, 2019.

Denise Smith

“I don’t know what I got myself into.”

Denise Smith is laughing lightly, though most people would hardly find funny what has happened to her over the past couple of weeks.

The grandmother and 30-year daycare provider loves birds. She and husband James live in a tidy bungalow that backs onto wooded parkland in Ottawa’s Pinecrest Creek area, and for years they have kept feeders in the backyard.

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Their house has no curtains on the rear windows and she says there is nothing she likes better than “sitting in my La-Z-Boy looking out on nature.”

She just had no idea that one day there would be 100 people staring back at her.

Visitors of the human species were not what those feeders were intended to attract.

Here’s what happened: A small songbird Ms. Smith could not recognize landed on one of the feeders in late January. It was very tiny, with white wing bars and a hint of blue. She took a photograph and sent it off to a friend seeking identification.

The bird, it turned out, was a rare lazuli bunting, a male whose plumage will turn bright blue come spring. It should be wintering in Mexico. It has been spotted in this part of the world only 11 times – and never in the dead of winter.

The bunting’s discovery marked the highlight of months of strange sightings in the National Capital Region.

Last June a small killdeer laid four eggs near the Canadian War Museum, threatening to disrupt a blues festival scheduled for the same spot less than two weeks later. The nest required its own security guard, and patience, but eventually the chicks hatched and the festival began on time. Early fall found a large black bear sitting in a tree in the downtown ByWard Market. Winter, meanwhile, has seen as many as 25 Arctic snowy owls in the region. And there have been regular sightings of dinosaurs along Rideau Street as the Senate moves from Parliament Hill to the old Union Station while renovations take place.

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But nothing has compared to the feeding frenzy – and we are not talking backyard feeders here – caused by the tiny lazuli bunting.

The rare bird was identified and mentioned on an electronic mailing list for birders. Someone added the Smiths’ names and their address. Soon there were detailed instructions on where to park and how to walk through the National Capital Commission woods to get a good view of the feeders.

Some passionate birders began to make weekend plans to travel, in some cases over vast distances, to achieve what they call a “megatick” – confirmation of a rare and unusual sighting. These birders are often referred to as “twitchers.”

Bird watchers stand on a footpath near the site where a lazuli bunting was sighted, in Ottawa, on Feb. 9, 2019.

Dave Chan

The bunting, however, does not keep regular office hours. He comes and goes perhaps once a day, and stays for but a fleeting moment to feed.

The dedicated birders came, stood with binoculars and cameras under a willow tree and waited – even as the temperatures at times plunged into the minus-20s, minus-30s with wind chill.

“They’re crazy,” says Ms. Smith. “Last week it was frigid cold and some of them stood there, not even moving, all day long.”

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At first there was but a handful. Soon there seemed a park-full.

Social media, digital photography and a passion for listing have all contributed to a birding explosion in recent years. In 2017, Condé Nast Traveller magazine called birding that year’s “unlikeliest craze.” A British survey on hobbies found nearly one-third of men aged 16-25 have been bird watching. Commonly (and wrongly) seen as a hobby for the elderly, birders today might as easily be hipsters sporting beards as long as their camera lenses.

Several responsible birders in the Ottawa area began to have concerns over what was happening in back of the Smith house. Overcrowding by the willow tree was one thing – being inside the house being stared at was quite another. It was unnerving.

Denise Smith continued to run her daycare. None of the parents complained – “they know they’re in good hands here” – and none of the birders were trespassing on their property, but still….

“We used to sit here really peacefully,” she says. “Sometimes a dog walker might pass by. But these people are nuts. I don’t have any curtains back there. It’s not right what they’re doing.”

Jon Ruddy of Eastern Ontario Birding had been involved from the beginning, sending out messages informing birders of the proper place to park, how to access the area and to show courtesy to the Smiths. But it was clearly spinning out of control. In an effort to get the bunting to move to a better area, seeds were spread to lure him away. It didn’t work. “I woke up next morning, there were ducks eating the seeds,” says Ms. Smith.

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The Ottawa Citizen published a story by science writer Tom Spears that was sympathetic to the Smiths’ plight, but it brought even more attention. There were rumours of “caravans” of birders headed for the Canadian border.

Mr. Ruddy then issued on a popular birding “listserve” what he declared would be “my final update” on the little bird.

“Unfortunately,” he wrote, “birders have continued to step over the boundaries that I have worked so carefully with Denise to establish…. To me, it should have been quite clear that if your feet are on NCC property, but your eyes are glued to the backside of an open-concept home (which also happens to be a children’s daycare), you’re invading someone’s privacy. It is my hope that the bullish and careless birders reading this posting consider that it is they who have effectively ended visitation for everyone else.”

Mr. Ruddy warned that any future visitors to the site might be “risking police intervention.”

A couple of days later, Mr. Ruddy told this newspaper in an e-mail that he was still “feeling raw about Denise’s frustrating experience with the (very few) bad apples in the birding/nature photography community.” He and others had worked to establish sensible guidelines that had been ignored by too many. The Smiths, he said, “rightly so, had had enough with breaches of privacy. It’s my gut impression that over 95 per cent of the visiting birders were sensitive” to the situation but, in the end, it was a case of “a few ruining it for many.”

As for Denise Smith, she was now armed herself with a camera: “I will be taking pictures of people, and at some point I’m going to become very grumpy.”

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That, it must be noted, would be extremely out of character for this laughing grandmother who loves small children and small birds. All she wants to do is look out her curtainless back window and see the four cardinals that have been visiting all week, and perhaps even a small bunting that has been lying low somewhere else for the past several days.

“I want to keep doing it,” she says of her feeders. “I love it. But if I continue to get ‘invaded,’ I’ll just have to put everything down.”

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