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It's an ideal time for bird-watching ... but stay away from others!

Outdoors columnist offers some tips on how to count and identify species when there are large flocks of birds in an area
20190410_Bufflehead flock_Canal Lake
This flock of bufflhead ducks on Canal Lake were a sight to behold. David Hawke/OrilliaMatters

Now is a good time to get all your ducks in a row. At least, that will help you to make some sort of order out of apparent chaos.

And right now, along the edges of lake ice, within flowing streams and throughout melting beaver ponds, there is a chaotic mix of ducks, geese, swans and other birds arriving daily.

A favourite pastime of birdwatchers is to make lists, notes and records of what they observe and experience on their outings. This is usually fairly straightforward in that when a bird is seen a quick checkmark or notation has it recorded for posterity.

But the simple see-and-note method gets a tad bogged down when you happen upon a major duck convention. As the binoculars or telescope scan the distant ice floe or flooded field you quietly gasp as your eyes focus on the amount of feathered bodies drifting, flying, waddling, diving and weaving about the area.

Yowza! How do you record this?

Well, first you start with a "guesstimate." This is done by sweeping the area with your binoculars or telescope and getting a gut feel for the number of birds that you have happened upon. A dozen? A hundred? Several hundred? Maybe a thousand or more? Experience will give you an edge here.

Next comes the "estimate", a truer but not necessarily accurate count. When I'm at, for example, Tiny Marsh, the Atherley Narrows, Matchedash Bay or Lake Dalrymple I use a telescope mounted on a sturdy tripod. The view is wobble-free and the 'scope can be smoothly swung from side to side.  

Now comes the 'bean-counters' nightmare.

Set the telescope so that the left edge of the area in view is just touching the flock, and start counting individual heads. I avoid counting bodies as when one duck is behind another, it looks like one duck - except that it has two heads. Count heads. It's easier.

Often the flock is too large to count within one field of view, so count the half, or the quarter of the flock. Then start to slowly swing the telescope across the flock, lumping like-sized groups of birds together.

Say you counted 50 heads in the first group, now count the number of times that group fits inside the flock. The result is an estimate of the number of birds present. Sounds confusing but actually it's fun to do (look, if you're outside watching ducks in the rain to start with, believe me, this is the fun part).

And finally come the species “census”. You've 'guesstimated', and ‘estimated’, now comes the nitty-gritty stuff.

Again, start the telescope at the edge of the flock and repeat that slow sweep, but this time count only a particular species, say Bufflehead Ducks. Record your tally and start again, this time perhaps counting Hooded Mergansers. Repeat until all species have been accounted for.

This method worked well for me when I counted ducks near Tiny Marsh (Elmvale area) when I was the naturalist there. Every day a visual sweep would be made of the flooded fields, most days producing nothing, or maybe a handful of crows and gulls.

Around March 28, give or take a day, the ducks would come back. And my eyes would be strained and watering by the time all the migrants were duly accounted for.

If you go birding out in the Lake Dalrymple – Canal Lake areas the water channel that flows through the middle of the lakes keeps the water open and inviting to northbound flocks.

And having a car causeway built across the lake helps give you a bit of access to the birdy action. On one of my outings there I saw a few birds fly by and set up the telescope to have a peek.

Gasp! The black along the ice's edge wasn't debris, but rather was ducks - hundreds and hundreds of them by my 'guesstimate'. A slow count pegged the estimated number at about 1,500 birds.

The species count, completed about 10 minutes later, tallied 1,590 birds, comprised of Ring-neck Duck, Hooded Merganser, American Merganser, American Goldeneye, Bufflehead, and Black Duck. Another 500 gulls were seen claiming territory on the nearby nesting island.

Spring is here, the migrants are here, and it’s the time to be out and about doing some bird watching (however please do so while standing at least two metres apart).

Here's hoping that all your ducks will be lined up in a row. It's a heck of a lot easier to count them that way.