A Short Guide to Birdwatching at Habitat
Text — Mark Mann Photos — Gabriel DeRossi
Mature forests can be difficult places to go birdwatching. Compared to fields or parks where birds are more visible, the thick canopy of leaves makes it harder to get a clear line of sight.
But forests are still wonderful places for birding, and the Habitat terrain is no exception. According to the ornithologist Sam Denault, as many as 80 different species of birds are likely to make their home in the area during the summer.
If you’re visiting Habitat and would like to observe some of the wonderful diversity of birds that breed and nest on the property, here are a few suggestions for making your birding excursions more successful.
1. Go out in the morning. Birds are noisiest before 8 a.m. and slow down in the heat of the day. In the morning, they’re hungry, so it’s a good time to see them out and about. Feeding birds are also more likely to get into territorial disputes, so they vocalize more.
2. Wear bug protection. Have you ever wondered why so many birds leave the tropics and make such a long trip to the north? The answer is simple: bugs. The boreal forest teems with mosquitoes and other insects through much of the summer, and while this is annoying for humans, it’s a bonanza for birds. This incredible abundance makes it easier for them to feed their young, encouraging them to mate. We suggest wearing bug spray and/or a mosquito net so you can comfortably stay still long enough to catch a bird through your binoculars.
3. Use your ears… or an app. It’s much easier to hear birds than to see them, so start by listening. The Merlin Bird ID app has an audio tool that identifies birds by their calls, and although it’s not perfectly accurate all the time, it’s a great way to get a sense of the variety of species immediately around you.
4. Bring binoculars, but use them judiciously Novice birdwatchers sometimes treat their binoculars as a scanning device, but this approach can actually lead to fewer sightings. Listen first, and when you hear a nearby bird, use your eyes to pick up its movement. Only use your binoculars once you know where to look.
5. Stop and go. Birding is an art of patience, but that doesn’t mean you have to stay in one spot. The amount of moving around you do may depend on the season. “During migration, I can sometimes stay at the same spot for hours, just waiting for the birds to come at me,” Sam says. But when the breeding season has begun and birds are established in their nests, it’s a good idea to change habitats to get a higher diversity.
These nine species are likely candidates for observation during a hike on the property, says ornithologist Sam Denault. To help you make the switch to birding with your ears before your eyes, we’ve added audio clips of their calls.
The rose-breasted grosbeak lays claim to one of the most celebrated birdsongs, which has been described as a happier version of the American robin’s, or perhaps one with operatic training. The male’s black, white, and red coloration is as bold and striking as a banner, though its preference for treetops can make it difficult to spot.
The Blackburnian warbler is a distant traveller, wintering in South America and spending its summers in the boreal forest. The breeding male’s fiery orange throat stands out even on overcast days. Listen for its “thin, wiry” song and look for a clear view to the tops of coniferous trees. You may see it gleaming like a jewel or chasing insects high in the air.
Subtle yet sharp, this elegant, olive-green bird is charming to behold, though its song is sometimes described as incessant and monotonous. It is prevalent in eastern forests and a good bet for novice birders, not only because of its repetitive, non-stop singing, but also because it often feeds closer to the ground and can be seen snapping insects from the undersides of leaves and flowers.
Despite its subdued appearance, the hermit thrush can give you a jolt on a walk in the forest. It often forages for insects on the ground, rummaging through leaf litter with its foot, and sometimes wanders into open areas or across trails, where it can be taken by surprise by unassuming hikers. Startled, it will burst up to a nearby branch and observe the threat, which may in turn be observing it through binoculars. The song of the hermit thrush is considered to be melancholic and soulful.
The ovenbird gets its name from the nest that it builds, a round edifice with an opening like a brick pizza oven. It wears black spots on its breast, and its tail sticks out at an angle that can only be described as jaunty. Like the hermit thrush, it scours the forest floor for insects, though instead of hopping it manoeuvres around in a “herky-jerky, wandering stroll.” If you’re a late riser, you may still hear the ovenbird’s loud, assertive song, as it is one of the rare birds that commonly sings in the afternoon.
The northern flicker is not only one of the most uniquely colourful birds in North America, it’s also relatively easy to spot. Like other woodpeckers, it is conspicuous on tree trunks, hammering for insects under the bark. It also forages on the ground for ants and worms and eats fruits and berries. Its song is sometimes likened to laughter, and to amplify its territorial defence calls, it will hammer loudly on hard objects like metal drums or old tractors.
This bird’s impressive size — the largest woodpecker in North America — and loud tapping on dead trees and fallen logs make it an easy one to observe, and its flamboyant red mohawk is easy to recognize. Pileated woodpeckers prefer to nest in the tallest trees they can find, so keep an eye out for towering deciduous or coniferous trees, especially in mature, old-growth forests such as near Lake McGuire.
After wintering in South America, this comparatively small hawk settles in the eastern and northern woodlands of North America for the summer. You’re most likely to see this hawk circling high in the air, hunting for small animals. Listen for its piercing, single-note whistle. In the fall, they return south in enormous flocks (called kettles) of up to thousands of birds. Enthusiasts gather at “hawkwatches” along coastlines and mountain ridges to take in the spectacle.
Pretty chonky for a small bird, the male is bright red with coal-black wings and the female is olive yellow. Despite their lovely colours, their chick-burr call is sometimes considered quite harsh (though we think it sounds really nice). They like large sections of mixed deciduous forest and especially stands of oak trees — try the lookout near Lake McGuire — and can be hard to spot because they stay high in the canopy.
Discover the joy of birding with ornithologist Sam Denault.
Don’t miss the spring and fall bird migrations at Habitat.