Your bird questions come flying in: Birder Tony Beck responds

A correspondent from Otter Lake wrote to me on 18 May, posing several excellent questions. Where, he asked, are the cormorants nesting on the Ottawa River?

Gillian Young of Bristol chatted with me about cormorants during Tourism Pontiac’s Spring Forum in Campbell’s Bay. So I knew she would know: I gave her a call on Tuesday June 6, to see if she could shed some light on the nesting locations.

“Yes, I can tell you exactly where they nest: opposite Pine Lodge in the Ottawa River, on what we all call Gull Island. The cormorants are nesting with the gulls,” Gill says, helpfully. “You should hear the racked the gulls make when they all start up. Last weekend we saw about 10 Canada Geese on shore, with a group of cormorants mixed in their midst.”

Are cormorants unusual here? I asked well-known Ottawa birder Tony Beck for help.

“Double crested cormorants are very common here on the Ottawa River, where several non-breeding individuals spend the summer. The main breeding population is in James Bay but many birds have regularly stopped off along the Ottawa River corridor. Other birds head to the Great Lakes where there’s a large breeding population.”

Tony adds, “There are many reports of cormorants and ring-necked gulls being sighted together. If your readers want to see cormorants, good spots to go include Quyon, just below Chats Falls dam. Closer to Ottawa you can see them east of the Deschênes Rapids. We don’t yet have any information about nests and rearing of young, though many cormorants are being seen playing with nesting materials, as if they know they ‘ought to be doing something with this stick! .’“

(So Gillian: get out those binoculars of yours, head out and see if you can spot some young! That would be an exciting sighting!)

The next question from the Otter Lake writer concerned wild turkeys. I had mentioned in my May 10 column that these birds were “making a comeback.” But is this technically accurate wording? He suggested that the turkeys never were here, and cited W.E. Godfrey’s book, The Birds of Canada, as saying that their range doesn’t extend this far north.

Again, I turned to specialist Tony Beck.

“There are many breed-and-release programs, in Ontario in particular. I don’t know who is doing it, but certainly this region [of west Québec] is outside the bird’s historical range. Hunters are lobbying for the introduction and re-introduction of species to shoot. But,” and Tony sighs here, exasperated, “because of our extreme winters here, the individuals just don’t survive for long.”

He continues, “The Ottawa River, Canadian Shield and St. Lawrence River Valley is a region whose winters are simply too cold and unpredictable for species such as the ring-necked pheasant and wild turkey. Occasionally I hear reports of sightings of pheasants, too.”

Tony sounds exasperated. “People call and are excited, and I am too. But it’s difficult knowing that the birds just won’t survive. Twenty years or so ago, pheasants were reported at people’s feeders, but the reports don’t come in any more.”

But, to answer the key point, Tony’s comment reveal that the Pontiac lies outside the wild turkey’s historical range and so Godfrey’s book, and you, are right! The bird was not “reintroduced” to our region, as my column suggested. Instead, the bird has been introduced, and may not be able to survive our winters.

And Tony’s words imply a cautionary tale. Sure we can reintroduce birds out of their normal range, but is this fair to them? Is it fair to do this simply because some people, hunters, want to kill them for sport?

It’s a pertinent and thought-provoking question that affects our fundamental notions of wildlife, wildlife management and habitat.

The final point made by the letter writer was that I may not have correctly identified what I saw. Quoting the Roger Tory Peterson “Field Guide to the Birds,” he wrote, “… it can be difficult to distinguish wild from domestic birds.”

Yes, it can be. However the turkeys that people have been reporting all over the Pontiac, from Greermount to Breckenridge, are the wild variety. But the Otter Lake writer is correct in that the species can be considered similar. It is prudent for everyone to have at least one bird identification book on hand to properly identify what species you are observing. The Peterson guide is a good one, for it introduces birders to key elements of identification that the author calls “field marks.” A series of little arrows positioned around the artist’s drawings of the species indicates characteristics that differentiate one bird from another.

Do be cautious about bird books that only have photographs. This is because lighting particularly affects the colour of feathers. Photographs just don’t measure up to artist’s illustrations which can reveal all major field identification marks. This is a key difference. By all means get yourself bird books with both photographs and illustrations: the more the better, I think.

My Otter Lake friend had a final question for me: “Do you think there is a decline in the bird population of Pontiac?”

For me, this is a subjective question, so I’ll answer it in that fashion. Personally, I don’t experience a decline in the 11 years I have lived here. But as Tony says, “You have everything at your property: grasshopper sparrows, eagles, red-tailed hawks, warblers, bluebirds, thrashers, mockingbirds, catbirds, grosbeaks… and the little blue heron!”

Why is my property so rich with birds? Because its habitat is extremely diverse: there are many “verges” or borders… between bush and meadow, between worked pasture and stream-beds. And there’s also the protection of Gatineau Park here, a wildlife sanctuary.

But what about the rest of the Pontiac? What do you people think? My neighbours say they’ve never seen as many owls, for instance, as this year.

Yet, Gillian Young feels differently about great blue herons. “We’ve definitely noticed a decline,” she adds. “There’s an island upriver called Split Island that used to have 30 active nests. Now the trees are still standing — but the nests are completely gone. How could this happen? Would it be because of the ice storm?”

Perhaps that’s a question for Tony Beck.

Thanks to my reader and Otter Lake correspondent for asking such penetrating questions. I welcome all your comments, observations and questions so please, contact me at any time. It’s a great way to learn about our Pontiac environment, together.


Tony Beck is leading a bird walk at Leslie Lake Park on June 17 starting at 7:00 a.m. “I’ll walk along the beach at the lake so we can check out the water species; then we’ll walk along the logging road looking for warblers. We’ll stop the mandatory 500 metres from the heronry but should be able to see and hear them.”

Join Tony. Bring your binoculars, bug shirts and insect repellant, hats and listen to the weather report so you’ll know what else to wear. Wear comfortable shoes you can walk in over medium terrain for four-to-five hours.

Getting there: Judy Lawn, Secretary of the Leslie Lake Park initiative offers explicit directions. It takes about 20 minutes from Shawville. You turn north on Highway 301 at Campbell’s Bay and go about 18 km to the Belmont Road (there are blue signs at 301 and 148 and just before the Belmont Rd turnoff. Turn left on Belmont. If you find yourself in the village of Otter Lake you have missed the Belmont Rd turnoff. It’s about 7 km from Hwy 301 to the park. Follow the blue signs. Shortly after you leave the paved road the gravel road swings left and then turns right again into the park. On your right you will see a large baseball field (before the eastern entrance to the park). that is where the group will be meeting at 7 am. You can also come up HWY 301 from Shawville, through Otter Lake to HWY 301. Keep left and go through the town. The Belmont Rd turnoff is just south of the town after you pass the bridge. If you have any further questions let me know.


Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer based near Quyon. Contact her at