Snowbirding

The Nature of PEI by Gary Schneider

Winter is truly a strange season. Some people absolutely adore it, while others flee to warmer climes. Personally, winter is a treasure. I love the beauty of a snowy day, and the stillness of a crisp winter evening. I do understand that it can cause problems for people, but winter has a unique character, a richness that I find in no other season.

Instead of being all about growth and energy, it is a season of reflection and observation. Though the spring bird migration can be wonderfully overwhelming, winter birds are just as welcome. Perhaps even more so.

Photos by Fiep De Brie

There is something special about a bird that chooses PEI as a warmer, less harsh place to spend their winter. We’ll often see eruptions of smaller finches and sparrows, everything from pine siskins and white-winged crossbills to American tree sparrows and common redpolls. It can be eerily quiet in the woods, then all of a sudden you can be surrounded by a mixed flock of chickadees, nuthatches, American goldfinches, and dark-eyed juncos. That is always a great experience.

East Point, Earnscliffe, Stanley Bridge and Wood Islands are among my favourite winter birding destinations. If there is some open water, there can be thousands of ducks at East Point, plus razorbills and black guillemots. The Earnscliffe area is a great place to see rough-legged hawks, horned larks, and Lapland longspurs. Around Stanley Bridge you can find greater and lesser scaup, red-breasted mergansers, and Bohemian waxwings. And the waters and woodlands around the Wood Islands area can be full of many species of ducks, American robins, woodpeckers, and finches. These are just four of the dozens of great winter birding areas across the province.   

Thinking of winter causes me to reflect on the many times I have spent seeking out birds in our coldest season. There was the rock wren at North Cape that should have been on the coast of BC. Or standing in the middle of a flock of thousands of snow buntings outside of Montague. Or participating in a Christmas Bird Count where it was too cold and blustery to even get out of the car!

Despite some challenging weather, these bird counts are an important part of the history of birding in the province, and across the world. They also provide a glimpse into the future. One day of counting birds tells you nothing except what is around on that specific date. But decades of observations can detect trends, especially in the face of a changing climate.

Four Christmas Bird Counts are held in the province each year. Everyone with an interest in birds is welcome to take part, whatever the skill level. The first is on December 16th at East Point, organized by Dwaine Oakley (dwaine.oakley@gmail.com). Next up are the PEI National Park count in Cavendish on December 17th and the Hillsborough Count on the 27th. Dan McAskill (jdmcaskill@pei.sympatico.ca) looks after these two. The final Christmas Bird event of the year is the Montague (actually Three Rivers) count, on December 31st. Scott Sinclair (ssinclairpei@outlook.com) organizes this outing.

If you are new to birding, these outings offer a great opportunity to learn from more experienced birders. You don’t need to be shy—even the best birders were novices at one time.

Winter birding gives you another excuse to get out and enjoy the season.  It doesn’t have to be a long trip—even an observant walk around your neighbourhood might turn up a cardinal or something equally unusual. Why not give it a try.