August 24, 2011

Are we ambitious to fly with the birds?

As published in The Erin Advocate

The fascination that humans have for birds is perhaps based not so much on admiration of their elegant form, rich colours and quirky behaviour, but on envy of their ability to fly. I don't think they envy us, with our wheels.

We have achieved amazing personal mobility on the horizontal plane, but if future technology offers the general public that same mobility in a vertical way, it will surely cause a flap in the twittersphere.

After we have destroyed so much of their natural habitat, and erected glass buildings that fatally deceive them, they won't be impressed if flocks of humans start invading their air space. Even then, we would surely look awkward.

Personally, I am content to stay on the ground, and connect to their world with my camera. That technology has advanced to the point where you can get amazing optical zoom and automatic focus at a low price.

One no longer has to be an expert photographer with expensive equipment to capture beautiful bird pictures. I got such a crisp shot of a baby robin in a nest on my property this year that there was a clear image of the clouds reflected in its eye.

I've never been an official birdwatcher, but like to keep my eyes and ears open while hiking. You have to be willing to stop, be quiet and observe what's going on all around you – not easy if you are focused only on reaching a destination.

It can be a very intense hobby if you have the time, with some people even taking a competitive approach, in a quest to tick off as many rare birds as possible on their list. The pastime got its start in the 1800s, with a movement to protect birds from being hunted for their feathers, or as specimens for collectors.

Birding is now a lucrative niche in the tourism trade, as more people are eager to travel long distances to observe interesting species. Specialized equipment includes binocular-cameras, compact telescopes with tripods, and digital recordings of bird calls to help with identification. Popular birding areas will often have blinds or observation towers to help conceal the watchers.

The tourism people at have published a brochure and on-line guide called Trails Take Flight, identifying the 20 favourite birding trails in the Grand watershed. These include the Gilbert MacIntyre Trail at Rockwood Conservation Area and the Elora-Cataract Trail between Belwood Lake Conservation and Orton.

I took a hike on the rail trail near Fergus last week, and within a few minutes had pictures of a yellow and black American Goldfinch and a scarlet Northern Cardinal. The trail is good for birding because it cuts through marshy areas, and because many of the clearings created by railroad builders have become lush strips of meadow bordered by trees.

For an excellent summary of local species, check out the Birds of the Credit section in the CVC website,

To get more involved, may I suggest you look up the Upper Credit Field Naturalists, based in Orangeville, who bring in guest speakers on birds and other nature topics and run a Beginners Birding Course. They have organized birding trips to not-too-distant places like the Minesing Swamp near Barrie and the Luther Marsh near Grand Valley. The Guelph Field Naturalists have similar activities.