Secret Lives: Listening to the call of the wild rejuvenates one York staffer

This is another installment in a series of "secret lives" stories, showcasing the breadth of interests and hobbies York’s staff pursues in their free time.

While most people listen to their favourite tunes on their iPod, York’s Joanne Nonnekes often has a little bird chirping, singing or gaffawing in her ear. For Nonnekes, bird calls are music to her ears.

An avid birder, she listens to bird calls from species all across North America on her iPod before her annual trek into the Muskokas to record which birds are actively breeding.

By day, Nonnekes (MES ’91) is the executive officer in the Office of the Dean in the Faculty of Graduate Studies. But come June 1, she can be found deep in the forests south of Parry Sound listening intently to a chorus of calls to pick out and record each bird she hears. Nonnekes is a volunteer for Bird Studies Canada’s Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), which collects data to see what birds are breeding where and how many of them.

Right: Joanne Nonnekes

Nonnekes gets up at 4am and is standing still and quiet by exactly 4:58 in the morning at her first stop – just south of Gordon Bay on Lake Joseph. “By the first week of June in south/central Ontario you can assume everything is on a territory and breeding,” says Nonnekes, who has volunteered for routes near Pefferlaw and Bolton in the past as well.

That’s the way it has to be “in order for the data to have integrity year over year over year. It has to be done on the same day and time every year,” says Nonnekes, who has recorded bird calls as a volunteer for close to two decades for the BBS, coordinated by the Canadian Wildlife Service, the National Wildlife Research Centre and the US Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, as well as Bird Studies Canada in Ontario. The BBS began in 1966 and is now one of the oldest surveys in Canada and the United States. For the first 10 or 11 of those years, Nonnekes’ partner was the one listening for the bird calls and she was the one recording them, but then they switched. “You do most of it by ear, by listening, although once in awhile a bird will fly past you.”

There are 50 stops in the 43-kilometre route Nonnekes traverses, each 0.8 kilometres apart. She is only allowed to stay at each spot for exactly three minutes. A stopwatch is a necessity, so too is an ear for bird calls. “Mostly it’s about listening to the songs. The first few stops are the most difficult. At 5am, the dawn chorus starts and it’s really hard to pull out individual songs when everyone is singing at the same time.” By the last stop at 10am, north of the town of Orrville, it’s easier as fewer birds are singing at that time. Identification of the birds can also be made by sight.

Nonnekes, one of 3,000 volunteers across the province, is responsible for being able to identify an eastern phoebe (above) from a great crest flycatcher from a scarlet tanager and a myrtle yellow-rumped warbler. In all, she must be able to identify the calls of at least 100 different birds. No problem? “Then you find out the robin alone has five different calls and you have to know all of them,” she says.

It is usually the male that is singing away in the wee hours of the morning. One of the bird calls is a warning to their babies in the nest to be quiet because there is a predator lurking about.

One year, Nonnekes heard an Acadian flycatcher (left), an endangered species in Ontario, and a bird not usually found in the area she was surveying. That morning, after Nonnekes finished her route, she went back to listen again for the Acadian flycatcher and sure enough she heard its distinctive "khah dee" chirp and saw the bird flitting about in the canopy.

It’s probably a good thing it’s a once-a-year event. The listening spots are deep in the forests and there are more than just birds breeding there. The blackflies and mosquitoes are so thick it’s sometimes difficult to see, especially when they get in behind Nonnekes’ glasses, her only exposed flesh. “The blackflies and mosquitoes are deadly,” she says. The rest of her is covered head-to-foot in a bug shirt, bug pants, a hat, rubber boots and gloves.

Her birding enthusiasm has also taken Nonnekes to Somerset Island in Canada’s Arctic to be part of an international shorebird survey. As part of the Ontario Breeding Bird Survey, a five-year study, she camped out for a couple of weeks on the northern edge of Algonquin Park to listen to and record breeding birds. “I started birding when doing my master’s degree in environmental studies here at York in the 1980s,” she says.

Left: Scarlet tanager

“I have to get out and do it. It’s an excuse and an opportunity to spend good quality time in the wilderness,” says Nonnekes. “There’s a quality about the wilderness that really rejuvenates me.” And when she’s not spying on birds? Nonnekes can be found playing as part of a women’s hockey league or blazing trails as the founding chapter president of the Humber Valley Heritage Trail Association. She is also on the board of the Wildlands League.

Currently, there are openings for volunteers in the boreal forest, as well as other areas of the province, to keep track of what birds are breeding there and whether the data is changing over the years. For more information about volunteering for the boreal forest area, click here.

The data collected by volunteers such as Nonnekes through the BBS is used to determine long-term population trends for breeding birds in North America. The data reveals whether bird species are in decline and require conservation, and if there are consistent changes in the numbers of birds breeding because of land-use, environmental contaminants or climate. The latest data is available in the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario: 2001-2005 (Bird Studies Canada, 2009).

For more information about the Canadian Bird Survey, visit the Bird Studies Canada, Web site.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer