Recap of MPFN January 2020 meeting


On Thurs. Jan. 16, 2020 at the Wye Marsh Wildlife Centre in Midland the Midland-Penetanguishene Field Naturalists learned about the “Best Places to Bird in Ontario”.  This is also the title of a new and very useful book co-authored by the guest speaker of the evening, Mike Burrell, along with his brother Ken Burrell.

Mike Burrell has worked for Long Point Bird Observatory, he was the Ontario Important Bird Areas Program Coordinator with Bird Studies Canada and is now with the Ontario Government’s Natural Heritage Information Centre in Peterborough.

Mike grew up in the Waterloo area in southwestern Ontario and inherited his passion for natural history from his parents.  From their earliest years, he and brother Ken were a birding team, sharing a bedroom crammed with bedside bird books.  Mike recalled bedtime conversations centred around the question “What do you think we will see tomorrow?”

One of the spark birds that really turned the two young brothers into serious birders was a Prothonotary Warbler that Ken spotted near Kitchener.  This is an extremely rare bird, with only about 20 pairs of mature birds in Ontario, mostly along the north shore of Lake Erie.  On a visit to Long Point with their parents the two boys met noted ornithologist John McCracken, who took them “under his wing” and became a mentor to the budding ornithologists.  He taught them that the Prothonotary Warbler is a cavity nester and so their nesting success can be aided by the building of bird boxes.  The boys got the plans and spent the rest of the year constructing boxes that they could contribute to the Prothonotary Warbler Recovery Team at Long Point.

The next spring when they returned to Long Point they were able to watch Prothonotaries nesting in boxes that they had built!  That was it.  They were hooked.  Internships at the Long Point Observatory followed, then more schooling in the natural sciences.  The boys are all grown up now and they are two of the provinces best birders, doing their best to mentor other newcomers to the world of birds.

A couple of years ago the two brothers were approached by the publishers Greystone Books to put together an Ontario entry in their Best Places to Bird series.  A “Best Places to Bird in British Columbia” had already been published and “A Best Places to Bird in the Prairies” was in the works.  But tackling “Best Places to Bird in Ontario” the Burrells knew would be a tall order.  Because Ontario is really big!  Over a million square kilometres with many diverse habitats – Great Lakes, deciduous forest, Canadian Shield, Boreal Forest, James Bay Lowlands, and even tundra! Ontario is also the crossroads for many migration routes.  How do you squeeze it all into one book.

Mike told the group that when he and Ken were young birders one of their most valuable companions was a book written by Clive Goodwin, “A Bird-Finding Guide to Ontario”.  He recommended that we all add this 25 year old book to our libraries, along with Mike and Ken’s new book as well of course.  Goodwin’s book is encyclopaedic, with entries for almost every village, hamlet, town or city in the province.  Mike said he and Ken would take it along when they travelled to hockey tournaments.  When they weren’t on the ice, they were out in the field, guided by Goodwin’s book to where the local birds were.

Mike was somewhat relieved when he found out that the Greystone Books series was to follow a different format.  Instead of covering every birding location in Ontario, their book would give more intensive to just 30 prime locations.  This would allow the authors to give more in depth reports on each area, along with strategies of how to efficiently bird these hot spots.

But how to select them? The brothers tried polling other top birders but found that didn’t work.  There would be general agreement on 5 or 6 locations and then things would get out of control.  So they decided to make their own list.  Getting down to it, they wound up with a list of over 100 Best Birding Places!  How were they going to whittle that down?

Mike admitted that they perhaps “cheated” a little by combining a few birding locations into one chapter.  They also decided that, since they anticipated that most of the book sales would be in the GTA, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to focus on areas that were in easy reach of that area where most of the birders are.  Mike was also partial to spots in Eastern Ontario where he currently resides and does a lot of his birding.  Though they were a bit worried that they might make people angry when they found that their own personal birding locations had been left out, in the end the Burrells decided to make the book their own personal “Best Places to Bird in Ontario”.  As Mike said, “If anyone disagrees, they could always do their own book.”

So with the 30 places selected, now it was time for the best part of the project – the Field Research!  Binoculars and cameras in hand, the boys were off for a massive birding trip across the whole province.

In his presentation to the Field Naturalists, Mike concentrated on just 3 of the areas in order to give us a taste of the book.

The first area was where it all started for Mike and Ken – Long Point on Lake Erie.  At 30 km long, Long Point is the longest freshwater sandspit in the world.  The area features many diverse habitats, including the Causeway, the Inner Bay, and Big Creek Marsh.  Mike highly recommended that birders include a stop at the Old Cut Field Station to talk to the banders there, who are always ready with hot tips about what birds can be seen nearby.  Spring migration in May is a great time to visit, but birders also come to the area in March to see thousands of Tundra Swans passing through the area.  In the early spring there might be as many 50 to 100,000 ducks of different species that can be viewed from the Inner Bay viewing stand and in November/early December Sandhill Cranes gather in big numbers.

The second area Mike covered was the Rainy River/Lake of the Woods district.  This area doesn’t perhaps see as many birders as the Lake Erie hotspots but it certainly sees just as many birds, with perhaps even more variety, since it is a crossroads for western, eastern and southern species.  American White Pelicans, Brewers Blackbirds (“as common as our Red-winged Blackbird in this area” said Mike, “they’re on every other fence post”) Black-billed Magpie, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Clay-coloured Sparrow, Western Kingbird, Wilson’s Phalarope, Great Grey Owl, Yellow-throated Vireo and Red-Headed Woodpecker are some of the birds that can readily be seen in the area.

The final area that Mike took us to was even more out of the way – Moosonee and South James Bay.  Although it’s a 10 hour drive and then a 5 hour train trip, perhaps even followed by a short helicopter ride to get out to the mudflats on James Bay, Mike assured us that anyone who makes the trip will be well rewarded.  Picture 100,000 shorebirds in a day.  One of Mike’s tips was “Don’t go to the bathroom during the train trip.  That’s sure to be when someone else will see a Hawk Owl!”

Mike brought along several copies of his book to sell and sign and several members took the opportunity to add this great birding book to their collection.  For anyone who would like to purchase it the book is available at Georgian Bay Books on King St. in Midland.

The next meeting of the group will be Thurs. Feb. 20, 2020, 7:30 PM at the Wye Marsh Wildlife Centre in Midland.  Don Komorechka, a nature, macro and landscape photographer based in Barrie, ON, will be speaking on “Snowflakes and Exploring the Universe at our Feet”.  Komorechka uses advance camera techniques and the latest technology to explore the science and beauty of snowflakes and other everyday treasures in ways never before possible.  His work has been featured on an episode of David Suzuki’s The Nature of Things, at the Canadian Science and Technology Museum, and at the Simcoe County Museum.  One of his snowflake images was made into a $20 coin by the Royal Canadian Mint.