Why birdwatching has become the new senior hobby


Diana Gibbs, who is new to birdwatching, during an outing in Toronto on February 28.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Spring migration, the end of retirement and the pandemic made Diana Gibbs a birdwatcher.

In May 2020, the Toronto resident went with a birdwatcher friend to Leslie Street Spire Park on Lake Ontario. Ms Gibbs, now 66, was beginning to retire from her fundraising career for human rights and social justice organisations.

“The woodwinds were just alive with sound,” Ms. Gibbs says. “It was really quite striking…a memory that stuck with me.”

Ms. Gibbs has joined the legions of Canadians who have discovered the joys of birdwatching, a flexible and addictive hobby that is gaining popularity during the pandemic.

Birds Canada reports that the online bird checklist platform, eBird Canada, saw a 30% increase in the number of people submitting data between 2019 and 2020, says Jody Allair, director of community engagement at the organization. The number jumped another 14% to 31,961 users in 2021, he says.

Project FeederWatch, a joint program between Birds Canada and Cornell University that tracks winter birds at backyard feeders, also showed a 46% jump last year, Allair says.

For Ms. Gibbs, birdwatching was a reason to get out and socialize safely throughout the pandemic. The hobby reassured him that “our human world is not the whole world.”

Ms. Gibbs joined the legions of Canadians who discovered the joys of birdwatching.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

She has joined bird and naturalist organizations and is more interested in what happens in her own backyard, where she has recorded 25 different species of birds.

Bird watchers can practice their hobby in backyards, local parks, conservation areas – and many take part in birding tours to exotic locations around the world.

In Canada, the spring migration, which begins in February and March with waterfowl species and continues until May when colorful songbirds like warblers arrive, is a highlight of the birding season.

Lynne Freeman, president of the Ontario Field Ornithologists (OFO), says there are many places to watch birds at different times of the season. Waterfowl coming from the north can be seen anywhere in the Great Lakes region in early spring, Freeman says.

In late March, tundra swans migrate across the London-Chatham, Ont. region. The Beamer Conservation Area on the Niagara Escarpment is a good spot for hawks in April and early May. And songbirds peak around Mother’s Day in southern Ontario.

Ms Freeman says the OFO started about 20 years ago with more science-focused participants, but has since broadened its scope to include members at all levels of birdwatching.

Some birders enjoy the competitive aspect of adding spotted bird species to a life list, and some, including Mrs. Freeman, enjoy observing bird behavior.

Novice birders don’t need to spend a lot to start the hobby. Experts recommend a good pair of binoculars and a good field guide. There are apps like Merlin that make it easy to identify birds, both by their appearance and their song. Many birdwatchers combine their hobby with photography.

John Gordon, a resident of Surrey, British Columbia, first started birdwatching through the lens of the camera. The 68-year-old former news photographer says he photographed a rufous hummingbird at Reifel Bird Sanctuary in Delta BC about a year before retiring in 2011.

“I went home, put it on the computer and was absolutely amazed at the colors and detail of this hummingbird I had captured in mid-flight,” he says. “There was a moment when I thought, ‘This is something I’d like to pursue. “”

Mr Gordon says he is a social guy and has met hundreds of people and made good friends through birdwatching. He is involved in clubs such as the British Columbia Field Ornithologists, conservation groups and leads nature hikes.

While he started birdwatching with a camera, he now enjoys going into the forest to listen to the birds.

“It’s kind of like classical music…it’s an incredible, uplifting, almost spiritual experience for me.”

There’s also a conservation element to this hobby that appeals to many retirees, Allair says.

Birds Canada has several citizen scientist activities, including the Christmas Bird Count and eBird, which provide data to researchers to track bird population trends. Retirees can also combine their passion for ornithology with travel.

Mr. Allaire is also a tour guide for Eagle-Eye Tours, which offers birding tours around the world. He has led tours this year in his home province of Alberta and as far away as Cambridge Bay in Nunavut. Arctic excursions are incredibly popular this year, he says.

For longtime birder and traveler Richard Skevington, 78, of Hickson, Ont., being retired is a big plus for pursuing his two hobbies. He and his wife Sharron like to plan their trips off-season and mid-week to avoid large crowds.

Getting to Point Pelee National Park in southwestern Ontario, one of the most popular birding spots in Canada, is easier mid-week than on weekends crowded, he adds. During spring migration, Skevington says he can see 30 species in one day at Point Pelee.

The hobby has also been a family activity for the Skevingtons and their entomologist son Jeffrey.

“A few years ago my son and my grandson and a friend and I went to what we call the chicken coop. It was a trip to Colorado in April to see Greater Prairie-Chicken, Greater Greater Prairie-Chicken, Sharp-tailed Greater Grouse…” says Skevington. “We saw all the birds we wanted to see. We drove back and forth and it was a good time.

Best places in Canada to watch the annual spring migration

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Jody Allair, Director of Community Engagement for Birds Canada, has observed birds across Canada. Here are his recommendations for some great places across the country to see the annual spring migration of birds:

  • The Fraser River Delta, BC – “It really is a world-class place [for waterfowl and songbirds] and one that is threatened with development,” says Allair.
  • Frank Lake, Alta. – This prairie pothole wetland east of High River is ideal for both amateur and professional photographers for the most notable migratory birds.
  • Point Pelee, Long Point, Rondeau and Pelee Island on Lake Erie in Ontario – “These places on the north shore of Lake Erie are all amazing,” adds Allair, with Point Pelee attracting the most birdwatchers enthusiastic.
  • Tadoussac, Que. – There is an incredible bird migration phenomenon that is recorded at this birding site on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River east of Quebec, he said.
  • Grand Manan Island, NB – This is a great place to enjoy spring and fall migration and there are whales too, says Allair.

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