There are lots of beautiful birds you can see only in winter


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This week:

  • There are lots of beautiful birds you can only see in winter
  • Reimagining nature through the Rewilding Arts Prize
  • What is a microclimate? And why is it important?

There are lots of beautiful birds you can only see in winter

(Mark Peck)

Everyone knows that in the fall, many familiar birds migrate to warmer, sunnier places and aren’t seen again until the spring.

But as it turns out, for many northern birds, “warmer, sunnier places” aren’t necessarily hot spots like Florida or Mexico — they’re places in southern Canada like Vancouver, Toronto, Halifax and the southern Prairies.

That means winter is the only time when most Canadians can see Arctic waterfowl like long-tailed ducks (see photo above) and buffleheads, tundra birds like snow buntings and snowy owls and boreal birds like common redpolls.

Not only can you see species that remain far in the North at other times of the year, but many of them also congregate in huge numbers that make them easier to see, and there are no leaves in the way.

Emily Rondel, president of the Toronto Ornithological Club, says many Arctic ducks need open water so they can dive for food, and Lake Ontario is often the first open water body they find when they fly south. That means thousands form groups or “rafts” on the lake that she calls the “winter waterfowl spectacle.”

“It’s really, really exciting to see those species because we don’t get to see them at other times a year,” she said. “They have all sorts of different, amazing colours and patterns and they’re all really uniquely beautiful … plus I can count on them. I know that they’re going to be there every winter.”

Likewise, in winter, other kinds of Arctic ducks and shorebirds such as snow geese and dunlins flock to places like the coasts of B.C. and Nova Scotia.

Meanwhile, Saskatchewan has the highest winter density of snowy owls anywhere in the world, says Stan Shadick, who runs popular snowy owl tours out of Saskatoon in the winter. His company, Saskatoon Custom Bird Tours, also offers a tour to see willow ptarmigan, another Arctic species that only comes within reach of southern Saskatchewan in winter.

A snowy owl on a stump.
(Brian Henderson)

“One of the fascinations of bird-watching is there’s always something different to see,” Shadick said.

Yousif Attia, a biologist with the conservation group Birds Canada, said because many Arctic birds congregate in urban areas in winter, researchers can get help from the public to monitor them during events like the upcoming Great Backyard Bird Count, which runs Feb. 17-20.

“We can actually count a lot of them all in one place, whereas in the summer, they’re just more spread out,” he said. Arctic species like long-tailed ducks tend to scatter across largely inaccessible northern lakes, forests and tundra during the breeding season.

Monitoring programs show that many birds aren’t wintering as far south as they used to. “We’re seeing more and more winter birds every year, really,” Attia said. “I would say winter is the best time to get interested in birds.”

Want to try winter birding yourself? 

Rondel recommends starting by going out to natural or waterfront areas with an open mind. She suggests bringing binoculars or a camera to get a closer look and making use of bird identification apps like Merlin. “That makes birding a lot of fun, because it helps you figure out what you’re seeing.”

If you want to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count, the sightings you record on Merlin or eBird will automatically be counted between Feb. 17 and 20.

Emily Chung

Reader feedback

Nancy Mersereau of Montreal wrote:

“I enjoyed Emily Chung’s report on ugly fruit and veg. Food insecurity is a huge issue these days. My idea is that expiry dates on food are often cosmetic as well as random CYA guesses by the manufacturer. Why do canned foods and jam have such short expiry dates? Who dreams these up? Canning, jams and preserving by fermentation (cheese and yogurt) were used in the past to store food long term. There are so many preservatives in breakfast cereal, sliced bread and other highly processed foods that the short best before dates are a ridiculous waste of food. When is the Canadian Food Inspection Agency going to wake up and tackle this enormous waste of food. Next thing they’ll put an expiry date on is salt!”

Lenn Hart:

“My father was years ahead of his time. In the ’60s, he dealt with large families who struggled to get food on the table. So, he purchased day-old bread, buns, etc. through grocers (they had to clear shelves after a few days and restock with fresh). The product was still good and he sold it in bulk at a discount. Anything left after a few more days was sold or given to the local farmers as feed for their animals. Little or no waste.”

David Grigg had a response to some of last week’s reader feedback suggesting that supermarkets don’t always update the stickers on their fridges after changing refrigerants:

“Great information on refrigeration in supermarkets. Re: sticker updating refrigerant gas: so easy to put an update sticker on the door and proclaim green credits. My car tire and oil change shop never fails to update their servicing right on the windscreen.”

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here

CBC News has a dedicated climate page, which can be found here.

Also, check out our radio show and podcast. The Great Bear Sea is the name of a planned new network of marine protected areas along B.C.’s coast. On this week’s episode of What On Earth, we’ll hear how the network can help shelter the ocean from the effects of climate change, and help draw down carbon as well. What On Earth airs on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET, 11:30 a.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador. Subscribe on your favourite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC Listen.

The Big Picture: Rewilding Arts Prize

A performance artist wearing a dress constructed from handmade paper and plants.
(Khadija Baker/David Suzuki Foundation)

A lot of the coverage around climate change and biodiversity loss is quite negative, for obvious reasons. But for many environmentally engaged people, the increasing severity of the problem has opened up a space to think differently about our relationship with the natural world.

One example of this is the Rewilding Arts Prize, a new initiative established by the David Suzuki Foundation and Rewilding magazine that celebrates Canadian artists “who are using artistic means to creatively visualize and bring attention to issues of rewilding in our lives and communities.” More than 550 artists applied, and the jury recently announced six winners (each receiving $2,000).

They include Quebec multidisciplinary artist Khadija Baker (photo above), whose installation Performing Community Garden involves her wearing an outfit constructed of handmade paper and plants and inviting passersby to take a plant, each of which is named after a person “lost or displaced through violent situations of various local communities.” 

There’s Toronto-based Amanda McCavour, who creates large-scale embroidery installations with strong ecological motifs. The work of Vancouver theatre company The Only Animal emphasizes humanity’s elemental connection with nature, while Vancouver’s Natasha Lavdovsky finds inventive ways to turn lichen into art.

There’s also Anishinaabe artist Amber Sandy, who, among other things, makes bags out of birch bark, deer and moose hide as a way to honour traditional practices that were disturbed by colonialism. And Justin Tyler Tate creates what he calls “Post-Anthropocene architecture” — improvised structures in nature that raise questions such as: “Which non-human species are its intended users?”

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • A group of University of Ottawa students is dealing with soaring food prices by dumpster diving behind supermarkets before shopping inside. They explain why and how they do it.

What is a microclimate? And why is it important?

The city of Calgary at dusk.
(Dan McGarvey/CBC)

Microclimates exist all around us. It may be a side of a city that always seems to be a little warmer or always gets more snow.

Think about Calgary, with its rain shadow from the mountains and chinook winds, or downtown Vancouver, which generally is warmer and sees less snow than surrounding areas.

Microclimates can range in scale from the urban heat island effect that encompasses an entire downtown right down to the sides of your yard that are able to grow different things. 

When you look at a microclimate, there are a lot of factors at play, but in simple terms, it comes down to temperature and moisture. 

“A microclimate actually is the way … the solar energy is used by the surface,” said Sylvie Leroyer, a research scientist with Environment and Climate Change Canada. 

Leroyer said that the factors leading to a microclimate can be complex, including everything from how porous the ground is and how much shade an area gets to the amount of reflection off the ground and changes in elevation. Water bodies will also play a role by moderating temperature and affecting wind patterns. 

“During the day, you would have wind circulation coming from the water toward the land that is warmer, and in the evening it’s the reverse,” she said. “All those effects interact together so that at the end, it can be quite complex.”

Microclimates can have a significant effect on the plants and animals within them. 

Mhairi McFarlane, director of science and stewardship with the Nature Conservancy of Canada, says that differences in microclimates are often more obvious in mountainous or coastal areas. But even in flatter areas, small undulations can create their own microclimates that help with species diversity. 

“You can expect to see different animals and different plants and different places because of these very small variations in moisture and light.”

McFarlane said wetter, shadier areas will host different species than high, dry, sunny spots on the top of a little hill or even a really slight incline. 

And microclimates can evolve, either on their own or with an outside disturbance. 

“If you have a natural hollow, then water will gather in there and that means that plants, for example, that have adapted to … having their feet wet will grow there,” she said. “As they grow, parts of them die. They’ll also drop seeds into the water and soil and that will kind of change that microclimate over time.”

Every yard will have its own microclimates, and understanding them is crucial to having a successful garden, says Helen Shook, a research technician who runs GardenLine, a free help service offered by the University of Saskatchewan.

It starts with the positioning of a yard. Shook said that generally the south side will be drier, while the west will get hot sun in the summer and the north is often shadier and windier. 

But that’s just the beginning. You also have to consider things like slope. 

“Low-lying areas tend to be areas where water will accumulate but also frost will sort of settle and be at the bottom of a slope,” Shook said.

In urban areas, your neighbours will affect your microclimate, too. 

“In city properties, we have neighbours with houses, with garages, we have fences, and all of those things will slow wind speed down,” she said. “Taller buildings can be a little bit of an issue, because depending on how high they are, they can actually funnel wind down and create a very turbulent area.”

Christy Climenhaga

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