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Great Backyard Bird Count

Cheryl Browne

By Cheryl Browne, Barrie Examiner

Wintering birds, such as this downy woodpecker, will be one of hundreds of species counted during the Great Backyard Bird Count between Feb. 17-20.

Wintering birds, such as this downy woodpecker, will be one of hundreds of species counted during the Great Backyard Bird Count between Feb. 17-20. PHOTO: CHERYL BROWNE/BARRIE EXAMINER

Fine-feathered friend aficionados need only apply.

With a keen eye, patience and an Internet connection, all Canadians are invited to take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) between Feb. 17 and 20.

“It’s a great way to get your feet wet without actually getting your feet wet,” said Brian Gibbons, with the Brereton Field Naturalists Club.

“You don’t have to go out in the cold to count. You can sit inside with a hot coffee or hot chocolate and take part.”

Gibbons said he and his wife Lynne have joined the backyard count each year since its inception 20 years ago, and he encourages novices to join, but suggests investing in a bird listing field guide first.

“It allows them to take their time and learn how to identify a bird. Lots of times when you’re out, a bird flits by and it’s gone up into the trees and you don’t have time to study it,” he said. “But if you learn the telltale markings, such as an eye ring, eye brow, wing bars, etc., you’ll have a better chance of recognizing what you saw.”

Gibbons said the world of ornithology is comprised of data collected by citizen scientists who take the time to submit the information they collect.

“A bird count gives you the satisfaction of knowing that your little bit of conservation is contributing to science,” he said.

The first year birdwatchers submitted their data, the American Cornell Lab and Audubon Society, as well as their Canadian partner Bird Studies Canada, collected approximately 13,500 checklists from backyard counts.

In 2016, an estimated 163,763 birdwatchers from more than 100 countries submitted checklists reporting more than 5,689 species counted globally.

More than 242 checklists were received by Simcoe County residents last year, said GBBC co-ordinator Kerrie Wilcox.

“There were 63 species counted, which is actually pretty good. That was the fourth highest count in Ontario,” Wilcox said.

Once birdwatchers have signed up online at or, all the data is instantaneously added to the worldwide count and results are shown as they are received, she said.

“I participate every year. It’s worldwide, so people from all over the world are doing it at the same time and putting in their data. It’s great because it’s collaborative effort,” Wilcox said.

And it’s a thrill to catch sight of a rare or even semi-rare bird, said Darlene Deemert of Barrie.

A few winters back, Deemert watched an ash-throated flycatcher flying in down the roof line in her backyard. With its lemon-coloured belly and rusty markings on the outer wings, after many years birdwatching, Deemert knew she was witnessing something special.

“It shouldn’t have still been in Canada; it should have been in Texas. It’s what birders call a vagrant bird, one that was sent off course during migration,” Deemert said. “I grabbed a photo. You do get excited when you get a rare sighting.

“The amazing thing about bird watching is the learning is endless.”

But don’t expect to catch sight of Canada’s newly proposed national bird the gray jay, or whisky jack, says Robert Lee Bowles, a bird and wildlife specialist based in Orillia.

The tough but friendly grey and white bird was announced as Canada’s national bird by the Canadian Geographic magazine last November.

Gray jays live in all provinces and territories, and not only do they not fly south for the winter; they’ve been known to lay eggs in -30 degree Celsius weather.

But Bowles says gray jays don’t make many trips this far south.

“In all my time birding in the Muskokas, I’ve maybe only seen one five or six times. If you want to see one, you’ll have to go to Algonquin Park, that’s usually as far south as they go,” he said.

For the Great Backyard Bird Count, Bowles agrees with Gibbons’ suggestion of a field guide, as well as a poster of Ontario birds to study.

He recommends a good pair of binoculars with an 8 x 35 or 8 x 40 magnification to better study a bird’s markings as you spot them.

His best advice for counting – and not double-counting – is to study the birds, know their markings and determine which direction they fly from when arriving at the feeders.

“Don’t count visits to the feeder,” Bowles said. “A bird will come grab a seed and take it back to its nest and then come back for another one. So watch which direction they go and see if they come back. Then you can extrapolate from that how many actual birds you have,” he said.

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