Thanks to an introduction from Terry Smith at Friends of Sam Smith, I had the opportunity this morning to attend the annual Whimbrel Watch out at Whimbrel Point in Colonel Samuel Smith Park. My primary aim was to work with the Humber Arboretum to interview Tim McCarthy and Wayne Renaud for the upcoming exhibit at the Interpretive Centre (oops! spoiler alert!) but as a first-time attendee of the Whimbrel Watch I thought it might be fun to share my notes from the experience:
4:00am – My alarm sounds and I fumble around in a daze. At this stage in my morning consciousness I’m not sure I could identify a “bird” let alone a whimbrel. Even the simplest morning tasks seem more complicated and I am silently grateful that I will be a cup of coffee deep before I meet up with the group.
4:30am – I head out to the car. The first thought that strikes me is that in the pitch black the street is alive with bird songs. Their volume is surprising against the silence from the houses. Before I have a chance to think much further about this early morning chorus, I become aware of a light rain and focus instead on wishing away the clouds.
5:15am – I am wandering into Colonel Samuel Smith Park. Sunrise will not officially take place for another half an hour but there is more than enough light in which to navigate the paths in the park. I expected an eerie, lonely walk through the dark but am instead surrounded by lit paths, dog walkers, and birders armed with large scopes. I had no idea there was such activity at this hour!
5:30am – My first view of Whimbrel Point as I approach reveals that I am not the first to arrive. My nervous and shy “hellos” are greeted with warmth and welcome. Wayne Renaud – one of the men I have come to interview – is among the group. It becomes immediately obvious that he is just seeping with knowledge about birding. He’s also much more prepared than I am for the day’s event: layers of fleece, a toque and mitts, and a bag filled with snacks to take him through the day – only his sunburnt (or perhaps wind burnt?) cheeks show any sign that the weather may pose a challenge.
5:45am – A crowd is starting to gather. Tim McCarthy – the second man I have come to interview – is easy to spot when he arrives. Dressed in shorts despite the chilly breeze, he wears a collection of feathers in his cap and a stuffed whimbrel pokes out of his backpack. He announces to the group that he has received an early morning email from his contacts in Virginia and the news is not good: the storms are still raging in the U.S. and no whimbrels were spotted leaving overnight.
6:15am – Despite the bad weather to the south, the first flock appears overhead. The sighting stops the conversation dead and a wave of binoculars and camera lenses point in unison towards the birds. Counts are shared with the group – around 35 in this flock – as Tim records the time and weather details on his clipboard.
Wayne and Tim spend the next few hours sharing stories of their own entries into birding, how they became involved in the Whimbrel Watch, and why the annual count is important for the conservation of the at-risk species. By the level of energy the two exude you would think this was Day 1 of the Whimbrel Watch – in fact, the two men have been out daily since the 19th.
9:30am – The excitement with the appearance of the first flock has waned and the numbers of birders out at Whimbrel Point has begun to shrink. A momentary thrill comes when another flock is sighted – but the mood quiets quickly as the group determines it is the same flock as earlier, still making the rounds. Today is shaping up to be a quiet one for the Watch.
11:00am – I am starting to fade. The early morning wake-up has distorted my stomach’s idea of when lunch should arrive and the cold has now seeped in through my bones. The conversation over the morning has been fascinating – a collection of first-timers and experts alike have generously shared tips, suggestions, and a wealth of stories. A school group visiting the area approaches to learn about the whimbrels and I use their arrival as an excuse to seek out food and warmth.
11:30am – I arrive back at the Interpretive Centre with my cheeks burning red from the morning wind exposure. The whimbrels failed to turn out but their dedicated watchers have made the experience worth every moment. I feel committed to the full experience now and make plans to return this weekend for another attempt to spot the flocks.
Want to experience the Whimbrel Watch for yourself? Join the group out at Whimbrel Point anytime between now and the end of the month (or stop by during this Saturday’s Spring Bird Festival!). Every knowledge level is welcomed but be warned – the passion of these birders is contagious and you may return home only to find yourself shopping for a pair of binoculars online…