Christmas Bird Counts

The Christmas Bird Count season arrived on December 14, 2022 and I was excited to do the Richmond-Munster count again after missing it last year. The Christmas Bird Count period falls in the days between December 14 and January 5th; each region picks a date within that period and conducts a formal census of all the individual birds seen within a 24-hour period. A Christmas Bird Count region is defined as a 24 kilometre (15 mile) circle that does not overlap with another region, usually centered on a town or important landmark. As such, they are referred to as “count circles”. The Ottawa count circle, for example, is centered on Parliament Hill, neighbouring the Dunrobin count circle to the west and the Richmond-Munster count circle to the south. Each count region is then broken down into count sectors with a leader for each, and this leader is responsible for providing their count totals to the count compiler.

Count volunteers are given specific routes in a sector, counting every bird they see or hear throughout the day. Both species and individuals are counted in order to determine the total number of birds in the circle that day. If you live within the boundaries of a count circle, you can participate by reporting the birds that visit your yard or feeder on count day, providing that you have contacted the region’s count compiler of your intention to participate ahead of time. You can find a map of Canadian CBC circles and the compiler contact info on the map on the Birds Canada website.

Sarsaparilla Trail on Count Day

Sarsaparilla Trail on Count Day

The Richmond-Munster count was held December 17, 2022. Centered on an area to the northeast of the town of Richmond, it incorporates Munster to the west, much of Marlborough Forest to the south, Manotick and a small section of the Rideau River to the east, Barrhaven to the northeast, and parts of Stittsville, Kanata, Bells Corners and Stony Swamp to the north. It is literally in my own backyard, and as I know the birds in my own 5-mile (8 kilometre) radius quite well, I was glad to lend my experience when I was first invited to participate two years ago.

The weather this year, however, proved to be quite challenging. With a forecast near the freezing mark on both December 16th and 17th, and over 30cm of snow falling the day prior to the count and continuing into count day, many birders were concerned about road and trail conditions. Would the snow turn to freezing rain, would the roads be plowed, would the the trail parking lots be plowed – these were all questions I had going into the count. The only thing I knew for sure was that the snow on the trails would be deep, so I threw my snowshoes in the car just in case no one had broken a trail yet.

I signed up for three trails and submitted one checklist from my feeder. Snow was still falling lightly by the time I got the car cleared off and reached Sarsaparilla Trail. A faint path led through the snow so I didn’t use my snowshoes. Still, it was a slog. It was fairly quiet, but it wasn’t too cold or windy so I was able to listen for birds. I threw some seed down near the entrance to the woods and wound my way through the woods. By the time I got back, there were several birds feeding on the seed. I only counted seven species: Downy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, chickadees, both nuthatches, and a cardinal.

Next I drove over to the Beaver Trail. It was in better condition as some people on snowshoes had already broken a trail. I found 13 species, adding raven, Hairy and Pileated Woodpeckers, American Tree Sparrows, juncos and goldfinches to the day’s species.

After lunch, I headed to the Eagleson Ponds where I met Janet and Derek to look for waterfowl and the Northern Shoveler I had found a few days earlier.

Eagleson Ponds on Count Day

Eagleson Ponds on Count Day

To my dismay, most of the 400 ducks I’d seen only three days earlier had vanished, leaving only 27 mallards and 33 Canada Geese – and no shoveler! Interestingly enough, the waterfowl were not the highlight as I expected, given that it’s one of the few areas in our count sector with open water. That honour went to the birds of prey – we saw a Red-tailed Hawk perching in the field south of Hope Side Road, a Northern Harrier fly over twice (not very common at the ponds) and a Merlin fly over twice. A single Snow Bunting flying over was the only one reported in our sector.

That evening we had dinner at the compiler’s home and tallied the results from all sectors. Overall the numbers were much better than expected after receiving the enormous dump of snow the previous day. In fact, our region ended up with 58 species on count day, tying last year’s total. We also established a new count week record of 69 species…the Northern Shoveler was included in this, and was one of the new species seen during count week.

I’d had so much fun that when I was invited to participate in the Kemptville Count on December 29th, I agreed. This is a fairly new count – only two years old! I was responsible for small sections of three trails leading north from Roger Stevens Road: Trails E2, E4 and E6. Because the count circle cuts through these trails, the shortest section I covered was 100 metres on E6 and the longest section was 710 metres on E2. As with the Richmond Count, we received another big dump of snow the day before (15cm). Fortunately the sun was out, and the temperature was warm – it was 2°C by the time I got to the trail at 8:30 and warmed up to a balmy 7°C!

Marlborough Forest

Marlborough Forest

The trail was packed down by a vehicle of some sort so walking was easy. I expected the forest to either be very good (attracting conifer and cedar-loving species such as owls, waxwings, winter finches and woodpeckers) or very quiet (because the birds tend to disperse in large forests during the Canadian winter). Of course it was the latter. I had only five species on E2, my longest trail, but these included Golden-crowned Kinglets which are difficult to find in the winter. I had only four species on E4, which included one flock of four unidentified birds flying over. I believe they were likely Pine Grosbeaks, but as they did not call and all I saw was a brief glimpse of gray I can’t be sure. As a result, only three species counted. Finally, on my shortest walk, I had zero birds.

Still it was a great day to be out, and I enjoyed checking out a small patch of open water at Trail E4 where I’d had the Ocellated Emerald and Ashy Clubtail in summers past. It was a fairly active spot with several chickadees foraging in the trees; I was hoping a grouse would come out to the water to drink but no such luck.

Marlborough Forest, E4

Open water at Marlborough Forest, Trail E4

I didn’t attend the compilation so I had no idea how many birds were found. Our sector leader advised that numbers seemed low, despite having more participants this year than last year. And, apparently, the Golden-crowned Kinglets I found were a new species for the count! Interestingly, the best bird of the day was seen driving on my way home after I had left the Kemptville count circle – a Turkey Vulture flying over Eagleson Road! This species does not overwinter here, so it likely flew up on the warm south winds that drove the temperature up so high.

I enjoyed participating in the two Christmas Bird Counts this year, especially given the weather – neither day was cold or windy, though the amount of snow on the ground made for some challenging and tiring hiking. I’m not sure whether I’d want to do one in -30°C temperatures or a blizzard, but I’d definitely do it again if the weather cooperates!

Links to the eBird trip reports for the sectors I participated in (not the full count circle)…I’m not sure whether these are public or not:


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