A orange coloured bird passing a seed, with its beak, to another bird of the same species

Cortes Island 2023 Spring Bird Count & an app called ‘Merlin’

Local naturalist George Sirk was sick for the Cortes Island Spring Bird Count earlier this month, so bird watchers had to rely on a new app to help them identify species. This new app, called Merlin, is one of many topics that he and Nancy Kendel, from the Cortes Island Museum, discussed with Cortes Currents. 

The conversation started out with Kendel (NK) giving an overview:

Image credit: A couple of Cortes Island residents during the 2016 Spring Bird Count – Photo courtesy Cortes Island Museum

“For quite a number of years, the museum has sponsored two bird counts every year. In December and early January, we co-host with Bird Studies Canada, the Christmas Bird Count, where groups of people spread out around the island and count the actual numbers of birds that they see, as well as recording the species.”

“The Spring Migration Birding Event happens the first Saturday of May and  usually includes the day before and the day after.  This year the count was on May 7th and included birds spotted on the 6th and the 8th.” 

“This birding event has a slightly different purpose. We only count species that we have observed, and it gives birders the opportunity to spend time together, share information and their knowledge with each other. We encourage families and interested novices to birding, to join us. They may pick up some tricks on identifying certain species of birds.”

“The Christmas Bird Count has been happening on the island since 2001, and the Spring birding event has been going since 2004.” 

“Birding is a really fun thing to do. George Sirk actually encouraged me to help organize the first Christmas Bird Count. It was one of the most fun things that I had been doing during the whole year, getting out for the day with other people and seeing the birds. Kudos to George for getting this going even way back then.” 

To which George Sirk (GS) responded, “I just want to point out that it’s just great that the museum takes on the task of organizing the event and then later tabulating all the data and then putting it all on the museum website. Everybody can look at all the different species that have been recorded in  the Spring. 

“I just wanted to talk a little bit about the ebb and flow of the birds of Cortes. 

“All the ducks are in Manson’s Lagoon or off of Smelt Bay, or in Squirrel Cove or Whaletown in the wintertime, because ducks from up north come down here. They overwinter here because the area’s so rich for food. Sometimes there are over 500 Surf Scoters in the Gorge. There are huge numbers of birds. They’re well recorded and documented  in the Christmas bird count.”

“Over 95% of them leave here and they go to their nesting territories way up in northern BC, Alaska, and the Yukon.”

“A few of those winter birds stay over because they’re probably non-breeding birds, takes ’em a couple of years to mature. They hang around here. So when the museum plans the bird count in the first week in May, they’re actually catching the tail end of the wintering birds. They’re around in small numbers.”

“The museum’s also catching the migration coming up from the Neotropics, from Central America, South America, the birds that come here in the summertime. So a completely different group of birds. Most of them are forest birds. They’re still coming every day or every couple of days.”

“Barn swallows weren’t on the count in the 6th of May, but John Sprungman got them a week later because the Barn swallow has to come from Argentina, that’s a long flight. Not all of them come from there, but that is one of the longest migrations of any of our land birds.” 

“Our Wax wings, Western wood pewee and Olive-sided fly catcher have not yet arrived. They come a little later, and of course the last one to arrive is the Nighthawk on the 7th or so of June. It does not like any cold weather. They come here and they’re the first to leave in September.”

“That’s the ebb and flow of the two groups of birds. And then the third group we have here are the residents.  Pileated woodpecker, Varied thrushes, Song sparrows. They’re here year round.”

Those are three different groups of birds that  we work on documenting. 

“I really encourage people, for the next month in particular, in the morning, get your cup of tea or hot water or coffee and go outside. Turn off the radio and sit outside with your family, or by yourself. Just listen to the dawn chorus.”

“The dawn chorus right now isn’t just at dawn because it is maximum nesting season. Right now the birds are singing actually all day long, but in particular in the morning. You don’t have to know the names of all the songs, just differentiate how there’s so many different kinds.  We’ve only got about a month of this incredible chorus that we can really appreciate.  There’ll be a little dribble in July, in early August, but nothing like now. People should just take advantage of May and June to go out  just really  listen to the birds.” 

“There was a piece on the CBC about silence.  Apparently silence is very hard to find.  Here on Cortes Island, we don’t have silence. We have birds all going mental out there, singing away.” 

“I just want to encourage people, like Nancy said, going out birding in a group is lots of fun.”

“I had an old friend of mine, 59 years ago we started birding, he turned up  and we went birding together. We bonded way back then and we’re still bonded. It’s a fun thing. Doesn’t matter what age you are, you can pick it up anywhere along the way.” 

“I couldn’t go on the count issue because I had a really bad cold and I was not going to get weaker, or give it to anyone else, but there’s still birds to come.” 

“Nancy, did you want to talk about any of the birds  that you saw, that you liked?”

NK: “One of my favourites was a Western tanager.  We were in Whaletown, and we could hear the bird, which sounds a bit like  a louder Robin, would you say so George? 

 GS: “Yeah, and it rolls its r’s.”

NK: “We spotted it sitting at the top of a fir tree and  recognized it right away because it’s so colourful.”  

“Also on a feeder the day before the count, Eric spotted a Lazuli bunting sitting on the feeder at the same time as a Black-headed grosbeak, and took a beautiful picture, which he posted on Tideline. To me, those were exciting birds to see.”

“In Whaletown, two different people saw a Spotted Sandpiper, and that was the first time I think that we’ve caught that bird on the count. Other than that, we didn’t see a lot of shorebirds, and I don’t know if there’s anything you can say about that George, or if you’ve noticed it?”

GS: “I actually haven’t seen that Spotted Sandpiper. It turned up I think three years ago in Whaletown Bay, and it raised young. It actually nested there. So I guess it arrived from points south, that could be Mexico where it probably over winters, and it’s the same pair returning.” 

“People have to realize too that when you see a Robin in your backyard, it knows you. Robins could live eight to 12 years, no problem. So it recognizes you. It knows exactly where it’s nested last year and birds return to the same pieces of property that they had last year for raising their young.” 

“Spotted sandpipers used to be here in the seventies. I remember seeing it in a few places, and then it disappeared for 30 years. I never found any, I never heard of anybody getting any, and then it returned. Chris got it  in Whaletown three years ago. So sometimes when there’s a vacuum like that, for a number of years, It’s not all doom and gloom.”

The birds are very fluid in their populations. Look at  the Red crossbill . You couldn’t find a Red crossbill last year. I never heard a Red crossbill last year, and they’re very obvious right now. They’re all over the trees. You hardly ever see them, but you hear them ‘Keep, keep, keep, keep, keep. keep, keep, keep.”

“That’s pretty well all they do is ‘keep, keep, keep.’ So if you are in your backyard,  you have some conifers and way up high you hear ’keep, keep, keep, keep, keep’ – and you hear a few of them. That’s the Red crossbill.”

 “That’s one of the birds, like the Purple finch, the Siskin, other Grosbeaks where the population will go up and then it’ll drop for a couple of years, and then it’ll go up again.  They’re conifer seed eaters, so they’re impacted by how many seeds the trees make.” 

“So what’s happened to the Spotted sandpiper? Why did it disappear? It’s very hard to tell, but it has returned in small numbers.”

“Another bird that we’ve lost is the Huttons verio. I see someone recorded it  on the count and I’ll have to find out who it was. The Huttons verio is an insectivorous bird and it also eats fruit but it really likes insects. This is the northern limit for that bird in the West Coast of North America, Cortes Island.” 

“We had a very severe winter year, 2021/22, and it lasted for at least six weeks where it was super cold here.  That winter 2021/22 was so severe that either they left or they died, one of the two. There’s been a vacuum for over about 18 months now, where I haven’t heard any.” 

“I do 90% of my birding with my ears. That’s why I encourage people just to listen  because you can differentiate between them.  I have not heard that particular bird. I look forward to finding out where this person got this Huttons, because it might be the only Huttons on the whole island.”

“The other thing that’s really neat is the numbers. Nancy, you were talking about how we recorded 93 species. That’s with all the people from the bird feeders in the home and you were mentioning that in 2019 it jumped to 102 species.” 

NK: “Actually it’s 2020 and that was because that was the COVID year. By May, people were trying to isolate. So we encouraged anyone on the island to participate individually and as a family group in their backyards  and to see what bird species t they could identify. That year we recorded 102, but there were 42 participants.” 

“In the last couple of years we’ve had about 24 participants, and some other years it’s been more like 13 or 15 participants. So the more eyes that are out there, looking around and spotting birds, the more  chances we have of seeing them.”

I think the average that we’ve had over the last 20 years is about 70 or 71 species  but like you say, in 2020 it was 102. Then the last three years have been 91, 95 and 93, so it’s jumped up.” 

GS: “Another thing I wanted to mention about the numbers going up, is people are getting better. That’s what happens. The more time you spend out there hunting down birds, finding them, identifying them, you get better and better.” 

“I think that also shows when you had these low numbers,  I shouldn’t say low numbers, but depends on how many people were looking.”

“When my friend Lowell came, there was a couple we met across the pond and they had the app called Merlin.  Of course, I get all nervous about Merlin, because it is some kind of computer that will drive me away from getting any more work as an actual birder who does a census. We’re going to have a computer replace me. So I was cranky about Merlin, but I was actually impressed with Merlin.”

“Lowell was telling me that what Merlin has done in their app is that they used to work on the quality of the song and the musicality of it, which is what I do. Then they went to sonograph, in other words: a graph of the sound itself.”

“Now they’ve recorded the bird songs and they’ve got them on the sonograph in the computer. When Merlin (in your phone), hear’s a bird, It  finds the graph that best duplicates it. So bingo, they really get it!”

“Merlin did make a couple of mistakes. We don’t have Black phoebes here, but that’s good for me. Okay. Merlin, you don’t get ’em all. But Merlin was batting 9.50 on getting the birds. It was quite good.” 

“The other little problem, Merlin doesn’t know where the bird is. It gives you a big long list of all the different birds that are singing right now- Western tanager, Purple finch, Violet-green swallow, Song sparrow, Golden crown king – but it doesn’t tell you where it is. I can still point, right, so I’ve got that edge on it- but they’ll get that figured out too.”

“Merlin is an interesting and worthwhile app to get. I don’t know if it costs anything.”

NK: “It’s free and it’s put out by the Cornell University. Part of what they’re collecting is when you do a sound recording, I think it uploads some of that information – because it does ask you what area you are in. Like Whaletown, or Manson Landing.” 

CC: “So it does specific accents?  I was told that one problem with bird recordings is you take it from one area, and birds in another area have another accent? 

NK: “They have variations, but usually there’s enough similarity in their songs and their calls that you can still recognize that it’s a variant.  I have used it and we were forced to use it because George got sick this year.”

GS: “I got replaced. I love it. (Laughter) It was good stuff.”

NK: “But it was really quite helpful for those of us birders that don’t recognize as many songs as you do.  I recognize some, but not nearly what you do. So it was helpful.  It gives you their best guesses too. It’ll list some, if it hears a particular song, it’ll tell you this, this, and this. Then you might be able to look it up or listen to a recording or something like that. It’s a really interesting app and fun to use when you go out, and listen with your ears. But if you have the app, you can also turn it on when you’re having your cup of coffee.”

GS: “That’s a really good point and yes, Roy, there are dialects.  Some species sound the same across North America. Other species like Townsend’s warblers, for instance, sound different here than in Stanley Park in Vancouver or the West coast where Tofino is. The same kind of buzziness and quality,  but the bird songs are remarkably different for the Townsends.” 

“I remember when I first started, I had to hunt down all these birds to find out what was singing. You actually had to go into the bush or into the marsh and look for them. So Merlin’s good.”  

“People should, first of all,  get a checklist from the museum.  Fred Wile, Christian Gronau and myself are the authors. They’re available at the museum for $5. Get it. That tells you when the birds arrive, when they leave. It’s comprehensive, it is out of date, but it’s still  very valuable. Then you can narrow down the number of birds.” 

“The other thing is that you can go to Cornell website or you could just put in something like Lazuli bunting in your browser. Cornell will actually come up and Cornell is a group of universities that got together. They’ll give you a link to the photographs and the songs of the Lazuli bunting. There it will be and then you can click play, and then you can learn a little bit more about the site I use. It’s the  very best one. And the other thing you’ll find out is that,  wait a minute, that Bird’s supposed to be in the Okanagan.  I’ve never seen one on Cortes and we probably only have five records in 40 years, 50 years. So  we get these unusual birds coming through here too.”

“Anyways, do you have any questions Roy? 

CC: “You’ve answered them all? I’m not that knowledgeable on birds.” (Laughter) 

GS: “It’s lots of fun. Get a bird book.  Sibley is the new bible or go-to book, but Peterson is great as well for a field guide

NK: “Dick Cannings just came out with a book.”

GS: “That’s right. The Dick Cannings for the West Coast. What’s it called? Is it Western? Not the Cascade. He’s a member of Parliament for Penticton and an absolute avid, nutty birder, and he’s better than me! (Laughter) I hate him, HATE him! We’re very competitive.”

CC: Is there anything that either of you wanted to add? 

NK: “I would just say come out  for the next bird count in December or early the first week of January.  You’ll have a great day and you’ll learn some things.”

“I did want to also mention the museum created a children’s book called ‘Are there Whales in Whaletown.’ There is a short bird checklist, and it’s really quite fun because when they see a common bird and there’s a little picture of it. They can put a big C there.  It’s just starting them to think about and listen to birds even in an early age. Come and check it out.”

GS: “I think Nancy had it bang on, get that Merlin app when you’re sitting there with your coffee and then you’ll know what all those birds are around your place. You can keep a little checklist at home. And that’s fun too, a running total of all the birds at your place, wherever you happen to live – whether it’s Cortes, or anywhere in the coast or some of your listeners in Germany,” 

Links of Interest:

This post was originally published on May 24, 2023.

Top image credit: Red crossbills – Photo by Silver Leapers via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

Sign-up for Cortes Currents email-out:

To receive an emailed catalogue of articles on Cortes Currents, send a (blank) email to subscribe to your desired frequency: