Blue Heron in flight

Where, When, and How to Start Birdwatching in Kawarthas Northumberland

“It’s 365 days a year,” Martin Parker says.

I’ve just confessed to Martin that as much as I get out hiking and cycling, birding has slipped by me. The perennial appeal is the first thing he stresses when asked what a newcomer to the hobby should know. Co-author of A Nature Guide to Ontario, official secretary for the Peterborough Field Naturalists, and lifelong bird enthusiast, Martin seems like the perfect candidate to initiate me as a novice birder in the Kawarthas Northumberland region.

The second piece of advice he gives me is to check out Presqu’ile Provincial Park. “Presqu’ile is one of the top ten in the province, no question,” he says. “Every season there’s different highlights, different things to go for in terms of Presqu’ile.” We’re meeting in early spring, and Martin tells me this would be a good time to catch the “waterfowl rush” — an opportunity to see several thousand waterfowl without breaking a sweat. “If you go then on Mother’s Day weekend, the long weekend in May, now you’re into warblers and shorebirds. Late May is shorebirds more. August is shorebirds coming back. In late August, late September you’ve got the monarchs adding in on top of that… you know, there’s something continually going.”

Looking at a map it’s not hard to see why. Presqu’ile is a peninsula that sticks out into Lake Ontario, and as birds migrate across the lake the park is the first stopover they see. Easy-to-spot shorebirds include whimbrels, red knots, and ring-billed gulls. Keen-eyed birders stand a chance of spying something rarer too, though personally Martin likes to avoid placing too much emphasis on the outliers in order to best understand the local ecology. Check out the Friends of Presqu’ile Park listings for updates on park activities and initiatives.

Once a novice birder has had a taste of Presqu’ile, Martin says there’s plenty of diversity in the region left to explore. For instance, Pigeon Lake, Buckhorn Lake, and Stoney Lake mark a transition zone between two strikingly different geographies within Peterborough County (for more info on the region’s geology, check out South of the transition birders will find agricultural landscapes, marshlands, and meandering streams that provide habitat for bobolinks and meadowlarks. Martin’s picks for the southern half of Peterborough County are Beavermead Park, Trent University, Lakefield, and the Otonabee River. “From early March right through to mid-April, every day the waterfowl is different,” he says, adding that County Road 32 is a particularly convenient way to access the river. Half-jokingly he suggests renaming County Road 2, which follows the shore of Rice Lake, to Osprey Drive. Having driven that route, I second the motion – it’s easy for a beginner to spot a half a dozen nests without stopping the car.

The tip of the Canadian Shield extends into the northern half of Peterborough County, where the landscape takes a turn for the woolier and birds like the blue-headed vireo are not uncommon. “Everybody knows you go across at Burleigh Falls and you go hey, it’s a different world. But that means you’ve got a whole different range of birds. So things you don’t find around the city of Peterborough, as soon as you hit the Shield they’re all over the place.”

His words echo fellow birder and nature author Drew Monkman, who writes: “Two worlds collide here and birding is better because of it.” To experience the difference in the northern half of the county Petroglyphs Provincial Park is Martin’s go-to recommendation, where in the colder months he’s spotted winter finches, black-backed woodpeckers, and snowy owls. Shield country is also the summer home of birds like Blackburnian, chestnut-sided, and cerulean warblers. Martin says these species are actually easier to spot here than during their brief spring migration through Point Pelee.

A little further west, Carden Alvar Provincial Park is the marquee attraction for birders in Kawartha Lakes. Carden Alvar provides habitat for over 230 bird species and is officially designated an Important Bird & Biodiversity Area. Even the name denotes something special — alvar is a globally rare type of grassland formed by thin soil atop limestone bedrock. Martin calls it “the place to go in June.” “It’s the best place in Ontario to see loggerhead shrike, which is an endangered species so you have to respect them. But bobolinks, upland sandpipers, things like that, it’s great,” Martin says. “Once you move north of Carden you’re back into Shield country. So you’ve got all the warblers and everything else.” If you’d like some guidance to help navigate Carden Alvar, check out The Carden Alvar Nature Photography Experience.

Armed with a year’s worth of location recommendations and a list of birds to look up later, I ask Martin what else I need to make a start. Binoculars, obviously, are the birder’s most important accessory. Martin prefers a magnification factor of eight, and adds that a wide field of view is important to take into account as well. He advises me to make sure the binocular I choose fit comfortably around my neck and in my hand. He also recommends keeping them handy in the event of a rare sighting: “Mine are always with me. They’re in the car,” he says.

Next, a birding guide comes in very handy. Martin recommends novices familiarize themselves with bird families – knowing a warbler from a waterfowl, say — so they can quickly find the right section and narrow down their search. Although he notes some birders prefer not to bring a journal to stay as in-the-moment as possible, Martin himself keeps a logbook to look back on memories. For the digitally inclined, he recommends the online program eBird, a service run by Cornell University where submitted sightings are vetted and stored for potential use in studies of bird populations.

With binoculars and bird guide in hand, it pays to strike out early. Especially in the spring breeding season, birds are easiest to hear calling first thing in the morning when they’re waking up, feeding, and defending their territories. For those who aren’t early risers, Martin adds that ducks typically stay on the water all day and hawks typically have to wait until midmorning for the thermal air columns they ride on to build up. As a general rule, even with your eyes trained upward he suggests being mindful of the space you’re occupying. “Give the bird respect. Watch what they’re doing. If they start to get fidgety, back off. Avoid stressing them when they’re on the nest,” he says. That goes for human property owners as well, who usually don’t appreciate birders lined up along their back fence with binoculars, even if it is to see something rare at their bird feeder.

At the end of our conversation, my mind is full of unfamiliar bird names. Given the depth the subject clearly has, I tell Martin I wish I’d started learning about bird and plant identification earlier. He counsels patiences and tells me the beauty of the hobby reveals itself over time: “Pick your local area and just visit it regularly. You’ll see the seasonal changes. You’ll learn when to expect it, and then you become familiar with what’s there and as soon as you start getting the birds down the other stuff will start. What’s that flower, what’s that insect, what’s that butterfly? Of course, butterflying is a whole another realm, but they’re easier than birds, they don’t get active until 10 in the morning!”

Martin recommends checking the Peterborough Field Naturalist’s monthly bulletin to find outdoor events in Kawarthas Northumberland – click here for details.

Featured image credit: Fred Thornhill

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