Sault Ste. Marie is a birders paradise.

Don Hall shares his 11 year-old grandson's ambitious year and love for birding...256 species in 12 months to be exact!

When my grandson Christopher decided at age 11 that it was time to do his first big year, I was a bit skeptical. The Big Year, inspired by the movie of the same name, would be an attempt to see as many birds as possible in a 12-month period. He set a goal of 200 species. It sounds ambitious but then Christopher has been birding since he was six and his young eyes and ears are remarkable.

Most birders consider a positive identification by song to be a "sighting" and Christopher can reliably identify bird songs that older folks—even those of us with normal hearing—can't hear at all.

Christopher Birding off the island at Pumpkin

Christopher Birding off the island at Pumpkin

Algoma is a great place to pursue a Big Year. Here, birds looking for a place to live find something for everyone. The hardwood forests of southern Ontario mix with the great conifer stands of the north. Loons and mergansers choose between inland ponds and the greatest of the Great Lakes. The waters of the mighty St. Mary's River never freeze, so waterfowl and raptors from the far north spend the winter here. Majestic bald eagles stay year 'round.

I asked Christopher what his favourite local birding spots were for each season. Here's what he had to say:

Spring – The Sault Canal National Historic Site

"I remember one day in the springtime when we were going on a walk at Whitefish Island with some little kids. I was behind everyone and out of some water I see two Black-crowned Night Herons leap a little above the water and then drop down again. There are lots of neat warblers around Whitefish Island too."

Sault Ste. Marie is certainly blessed to have the Sault Canal, an oasis of green just a short walk from downtown. Migrating songbirds stop here to rest and fuel up.

Summer – Cycling near Echo Bay

"In the summer it's fun to go biking with the Sault Naturalists. One spot always has spotted sandpipers, and sometimes Wilson's Snipes. It's easy to hear and see birds when you're on a bike. Hay fields are great for Bobolinks, and in brushy spots we hear the buzzy calls of Clay-colored Sparrows."

The back roads between Echo Bay and Bar River traverse diverse habitats including forests, fields and wetlands. There is a marsh viewing platform at the end of Lake Street in Echo Bay.

Wood Duck - Bill Purnis

Wood Duck - Bill Purnis

Fall – Kayaking at Pumpkin Point

"Kayaking near Pumpkin Point is always lots of fun. I remember one day last fall we were out with our friends Jack and Gail; the water was high so there was only one sandbar, and we saw 2 stilt sandpipers. It was tough identifying them because they were juveniles. The island had lots shorebirds."

The wetlands of Echo Bay and Lake George are excellent for waterfowl and (during spring and fall migration) shorebirds. Bald Eagles and Ospreys are common.

Winter – The St. Mary's River

"The St. Mary's river has lots of open water in the winter. It's a great place for water birds. I remember one October seeing Eared Grebes, Red-necked Grebes, Horned Grebes and Pied-billed Grebes all in one place. Later that day, near Squirrel Island I saw a big flock of Tundra Swans."

Black-crowned Night-Heron - Ron Johnston

Black-crowned Night-Heron - Ron Johnston

Good choice, Christopher! The rapids and the river are the centerpiece of local birding during the chilly winter months. Some winters allow glimpses of a beautiful bird rarely seen this far south—the Gyrfalcon.

A Really Big Year!

I was skeptical about Christopher's goal of 200 species but by exploring the rivers, lakes, forests, fields and towns of Algoma, Christopher was able to identify 185 species. He added another 71 birds from far-flung locations, for a total of 256 species. Well done! Buoyed by his success in 2013, he has set a goal of 275 species for 2014.

Osprey with Pike - Linda Tozer-Johnston

Osprey with Pike - Linda Tozer - Johnston

Here are some links to sites that birders may find useful:

Birder's Guide to the Sault Ste. Marie Area (excellent downloadable maps)
Sault Naturalists of Ontario and Michigan
Sault Ste. Marie Canal National Historic Site

For helpful maps just click here and search for Sault Canal, Pumpkin Point or Echo Bay.

About Don Hall

Don Hall is a retired community college instructor, and long-time member of the Sault Naturalists.

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