The annual birding battle for the golden binoculars

In today’s post, Learning & Education Specialist Rachelle Law recounts Team Ontario’s push to find as many birds as possible. 

Every year, a team of expert birders from Ontario Parks prepare — binoculars in hand — to compete in a heated competition.

The goal: spot and record as many bird species as they can over one weekend, and win the coveted “golden” binoculars.

This heated birding battle is part of the National Association for Interpretation’s (NAI) Great Lakes Region Birdathon, which has Ontario Parks staff (“Team Ontario”) compete with teams from Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana.

staff birdwatching

The annual Birdathon helps to raise money for NAI, and encourages park naturalists who are NAI members to get outside and flex their impressive birding skills.

This year, the competition took place over the weekend of May 7-9.

How does the Birdathon work?

From different locations across the province, team members bird whenever they have the chance over three days.

Birding is done individually, and looks differently for everyone. For some, it might be a sunrise birding session, a bike ride through the forest, a walk along the shoreline of lakes, rivers, and ponds, or even watching from our windows.

person birdwatching with binoculars

Ontario Parks staff keep their eyes on the skies, and record as many birds they can see or hear as possible. We keep a record of the number and variety of species that we find, and tally them up as a team, which we then submit to NAI.

The winning team receives possession of the “golden” binoculars for the year (and bragging rights!).

Why is participating in Birdathons important?

Birdathons are a great way for park staff to keep track of how populations of birds are doing in their area.

Ecological monitoring and community science are important initiatives, especially to keep track of ongoing effects of climate change and habitat loss.

I asked Ontario Parks Discovery staff why they thought participating in the Birdathon was important.

Here’s what they had to share:

A strong sense of community     

“I feel Birdathons are important in promoting a culture of knowledge sharing and community science.

“The more time we can spend outside, especially when observing species, the more we can learn and appreciate them. There’s also a sense of community that comes from a Birdathon.”

– Laura McClintock, Senior Park Naturalist at Sibbald Point Provincial Park

David Legros from Algonquin Provincial Park captured this exciting sighting of an Osprey in its nest during the Birdathon

Connection and appreciation

“I love how a little friendly competition like this connects me to my interpretive naturalist colleagues across the province.

“It gives me a new appreciation for the amazing diversity of birds in our parks and the incredible naturalist skills of our Discovery staff. It is also an annual reminder for me of the spectacular phenomenon that is spring migration.”

– Tobi Kiesewalter, Learning and Discovery Program Coordinator

The best bird sightings from the weekend

The bird sightings are still being tallied up from the weekend and Team Ontario is very hopeful that we won this year!

Team members were able to spot a large and diverse amount of bird species from across the province, including Sandhill Cranes, a Piping Plover, Bald Eagles, a Great Horned Owl, and many more!

When Ontario Parks staff were asked about their favourite bird sightings, here’s what some had to share:

A lucky encounter

“The sighting that stood out to me the most was a chance encounter I had with a Virginia Rail. I was birding down by a pond at a local nature reserve, and there wasn’t too much bird action — Canada Goose, Mallards, the usual.

“I was standing on the water’s edge when a stick floating in the water drifted into view. Sitting on the stick was a Virginia Rail! It just floated on by, not bothered by my presence. It was both comical to see this bird enjoying the ride on its stick, but also rewarding to study the bird from such a close range.”

– Laura McClintock, Senior Park Naturalist at Sibbald Point Provincial Park

Alistair MacKenzie from Pinery Provincial Park captured this beautiful shot of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird he spotted over the weekend

Inspiring migrators

“Imagine sitting in one of those ON route rest stations along the 401, watching people come and go and wondering where everybody’s final destination is. That’s what comes to mind for me at this time of year.

“The Palm Warbler I saw in my neighbourhood park was probably on its way to its breeding habitat in a bog in northern Ontario. Almost 100% of Palm Warblers breed in Canada’s boreal forest. This bird was flying home from Mexico or the Caribbean and it picked my neighbourhood to rest and refuel in. Amazing…”

– Tobi Kiesewalter, Learning and Discovery Program Coordinator

Other weekend highlights:

Connected by birds

“Getting into the woods well before dawn, listening to the birds wake up and start singing, hearing a new migrant that wasn’t there the day before, was just amazing. Imagining the millions of birds flying overnight and landing all around us is a great reminder of how our world is connected by birds.”

– David Legros, Discovery Specialist at Algonquin Provincial Park

My favourite weekend sighting was getting to watch a Black-capped Chickadee completely devour a caterpillar

A peaceful escape

“I feel we all enjoyed together the time we spent looking for birds and just spending time outdoors. I am still new at birding, but we all left with smiles on our faces and just let the tension of life melt away for that couple of hours we were outside.”

– Janet Fenton, Discovery Program Zone Coordinator

two Wood Ducks
Alistair MacKenzie spotted these male and female Wood Ducks

Bird monitoring and conservation beyond the Birdathon

Caring for birds doesn’t just end at participating in an annual Birdathon. Ontario Parks and Discovery Staff are actively involved in many different bird monitoring and conservation projects across the province.

One project we are particularly excited about is the third Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas! This is an enormous community science initiative that aims to survey all the province’s breeding birds.

Beyond the golden binoculars

staff looking through binoculars

For Discovery staff, the Birdathon is more than just a competition.

The Golden Binoculars are a symbol of the extraordinary passion Discovery staff across the province have for the natural world.

We work hard as a team to protect parks and all living things in Ontario Parks’ diverse ecosystems.

We encourage you to grab a pair of binoculars and explore the bird world yourself at your local park!

Submit your sightings to iNaturalist and reach out if you have any questions.

Happy birding!