Michael Runtz was sitting on a rock with fellow birders eating cheese and crackers 52 years ago when a red-breasted nuthatch landed on the snow-covered rock beside them. It was his first Christmas bird count, and he hasn't missed one since.
"I'll never forget that vivid contrast of dark grey and red breast against the white rock, that was spectacular," said Mr. Runtz, a professor of natural history at Carleton University and an avid birdwatcher since he was five years old.
Prof. Runtz is one of thousands of Canadians who participate in the annual Christmas bird count. During the holiday season, hundreds of groups of birders in North America take to their local parks, waterfronts, fields and forests to count all the species and individual birds they can spot as part of one of the largest – and oldest – citizen-science projects in the world.
The Christmas bird count began in 1900 as a response to a hunting tradition where residents competed to shoot as many birds as possible on Christmas Day. American ornithologist Frank Chapman, an early conservationist, persuaded several North American cities to host a bird count instead of a hunt. Thus a new tradition was born, and it now takes place over the span of almost a month, starting Dec. 14 this year and ending Jan. 5.
Toronto was one of the few cities – and the only Canadian city – to participate in 1900. The Arnprior, Ont., bird count, which Mr. Runtz has been leading since 1970, began 13 years after the inaugural event. While the tradition has strayed from the killing, it did not stray from the competition.
"We definitely have our Toronto pride," said Emily Rondel, co-ordinator of the Toronto Christmas bird count and professional ornithologist for Bird Studies Canada, a national bird-conservation organization. "We want to find as many birds as possible, and we want our list to be a good one."
Despite Toronto being a concrete jungle, it is a good bird habitat. Between the city's waterfront, small marshes, parks and extensive ravine system, the Toronto groups counted 91 species on Dec. 17 this year, and more than 28,000 individual birds – down by about 10,000 from last year. The results are reported back to Bird Studies Canada, and often shared between circles as part of the friendly competition.
But it's more than competition for birders. The data collected and analyzed by Bird Studies Canada helps to track the migration, wintering habits and health of bird populations. Over the past several decades of Christmas data collection, Bird Studies Canada has noticed that birds have moved further north by as much as 300 kilometres as a result of increasing temperatures, Ms. Rondel said.
"The only way to track what's happening for this entire half of the year is to get hundreds of thousands of people out during the same period every year all over the place," said Ms. Rondel, who has been volunteering with the Christmas bird count for four years. "Without them, we just wouldn't know what was happening with bird populations."
The bird counts are a chance for locals to check in on their own bird populations, said Joan MacGillivray, who leads the bird count in Elliot Lake, Ont., a town of 11,000 people two hours west of Sudbury. A group of 10 spent all day on Dec. 16 in well-below-freezing weather, counting species that included grey jays (Canada's national bird) and chickadees, and heading to the local dump to count a total of 50 ravens.
Despite the high number of ravens and chickadees this year, the Elliot Lake bird count was the lowest it has been in 15 years. "Why is it down this year? That's something to follow up on," Ms. MacGillivray said. She said her community has noticed an overall decline in birds, so it might not have just been the minus-23C weather that prevented the group from spotting as many birds as in previous years.
The annual bird counts help locals connect with birder friends, and bird friends.
"It's very much like seeing old friends," said Anne Bell, director of conservation and education with Ontario Nature and a long-time birder. For Ms. Bell, walking among the trees of High Park in Toronto is a way for her to check in on species, such as red-bellied woodpeckers, every year. She says they seemed to be doing well this year.
While strolling through the park, Ms. Bell joked with her husband that if they were on a mammal count, they would have one species: squirrel.
"With birds, you can see some diversity," said Ms. Bell, who has been doing the bird walks for 20 years. "The fact that they're so beautiful and their life histories are so amazing. I mean, some birds travel thousands of kilometres every year when they migrate."
"They're an inspiration and they're beautiful," she said.
Big Year in a life list of an Ontario birder
Jeremy Bensette, 28, has dedicated an entire year to documenting as many bird species in Ontario as he can. A field biologist from Leamington, Ont., Mr. Bensette has now broken the record for most recorded species, beating a friend's record with 346 bird species. His Big Year, as it's called in the birding and ecology community, has taken him more than 90,000 kilometres into the nooks and crannies of Ontario trying to find the rarest species in the province.
The Globe and Mail: How did you start birding?
Jeremy Bensette: I've always been interested in wildlife, seeing cool flowers and bugs. A friend of mine and I bought DSLR cameras in 2011 so we started chasing deer around in local parks to photograph, but that got boring pretty quickly. We bumped into people who were birding and it seemed like a more sustainable hobby. My very first bird walk was an owl walk after dark at Point Pelee, which is Canada's mecca for bird watching. Someone led the group and hooted for owls, or played owl calls, and we just quietly listened and hoped they would call back. I think I knew that night that I wanted to do this as a career, so I asked all the uninformed questions I could think of that evening.
TGAM: How does the sense of community mix with the competitive edge of birding?
JB: For me, I see competitive birding more as just trying to push oneself to do the best one can, whether it's just in that moment or doing one's best to identify any bird that flies by in an outing. For me, it's not really about competing interpersonally with other people. This year, I set out to do the best year species-wise that I could in Ontario. There's a lot of gratification in beating a record, but with something as volatile and dynamic as bird activity, you can't just start a year assuming you'll beat a record.
There are huge aspects of social support that go into this thing. I have friends all over Ontario who would let me stay with them if I was there chasing birds. I have friends who have come with me to track birds, people who have contacted me with rare-bird sightings.
TGAM: What has your most memorable moment been this year?
JB: That was probably when I did break the record on Nov. 20, not so much because it was a goal but because it was a really exciting five- or six-hour drive. I was travelling with a friend and we were on our way to Cornwall, to look through a flock of 50,000 or 100,000 snow geese that we were hoping were going to be in a certain field. I got a phone call about a really rare bird in Ontario that normally lives on the Atlantic Ocean called a northern gannet, so we turned around and raced back to Hamilton. Someone had the telescope already set up pointing at it on the water when we got there. My other two best friends were just minutes away and we celebrated with childish little squeaks and cheers and photos.
TGAM: What are some of the rare birds you've documented this year?
JB: My most recent addition to the list was a tufted duck [in Mississauga]. Luc Fazio, a pioneer of Ontario birding, was on a Christmas bird count and saw it, so I drove down from Leamington to the Port Credit area to see it. That was one I'd never seen in North America, so it was pretty special.
I once drove 25 hours straight from Rainy River, where Ontario meets Manitoba and Minnesota, to Toronto to see a tricoloured heron. That was also the bird that my friend and I drove all the way to Thunder Bay in an ice storm in April to try to see. We missed it so we drove all the way back home, about 18 hours each way, without having seen it.
The rarest species I've seen, though, is a barn owl, the second-last bird species I've seen. Barn owls are considered extirpated from Ontario, basically meaning they no longer breed sustainably in the province. There are very few sightings per year – this year there were only four, from what I know – and they're in a pretty strong decline in Ontario. I was very blessed with some news that there was a barn owl in Southern Ontario – I won't say where because of conservation and privacy reasons – and I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to see it. My knees buckled. This is the most special bird I have ever seen in Ontario, not just this year.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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