A New Birding Guide for Ontario
April 17, 2020
A review by Jody Allair
Best Places to Bird in Ontario, by Kenneth Burrell and Michael Burrell
Greystone Books, 2019
288 pages, softcover
Point Pelee, Algonquin Park, Carden Alvar—Ontario is loaded with world-class birding destinations. The publication of Best Places to Bird in Ontario in 2019 represents the first new birdfinding guide for the province in over 20 years. The guide is a thorough yet readable summary of Ontario’s premier birding locations.
The authors, Ken and Mike Burrell, are lifelong birders who have spent much of their time exploring the province looking for birds. It was no surprise, then, to hear that they were undertaking this project to create a new birding guide for Ontario. In addition to their tremendous birding skills, they have an uncanny ability to enthusiastically and succinctly describe the attributes of the locations they have chosen. There is a lot of great content packed into this guide.
Best Places to Bird in Ontario is the third in this series from Greystone Books. Previous titles include Best Places to Bird in British Columbia (2017) and Best Places to Bird in the Prairies (2018). The titles in this series fully embrace the use of “bird” as a verb. I did wonder whether “birding,” “birdwatching,” or perhaps “Best Places to See Birds” might have been more accessible choices for a general audience. I personally think it’s fine, but it does raise the question of who the intended audience is for this book. The overall product, however, is quite clear. This book is full of information that will appeal not only to seasoned birders, but also to those new to birding.
Like so many birdfinding guides, there is a short introduction about the region, along with a breakdown of how the guide is structured. Something that strikes the reader almost immediately is the refreshingly personal approach to the writing. The authors discuss the rather arduous task of choosing their 30 top sites—no small challenge in a region so large and diverse. When drawing such a hard line in the sand, you are bound to receive criticism for not including certain sites. You could make a case that locations such as Manitoulin Island, Petroglyphs Provincial Park, and Luther Marsh should have been included here, and to the authors’ credit, they acknowledge sites in the introduction that did not make the cut. As I’ve said already, this was no easy task. I think the top 30 sites chosen form an excellent basis for the guide. After all, this book is not intended to be a comprehensive list of all the possible birding hotspots across Ontario. The result is a wonderfully focused and compact guide.
The introduction includes a list of travel tips for those visiting Ontario: ideal times of year to visit, the importance of seasonal weather patterns during migration, and how to navigate the highways in the Greater Toronto Area. I particularly like the inclusion of links to birding organizations within the province, along with ethical guidelines derived from the ABA Code of Birding of Ethics. To me, including content on ethical birding practices is very important in guides that will reach new birders.
Each section is focused on a specific location. Within each chapter, the authors give a good description of the natural history of the area, a breakdown of key birds, time of year to visit, suggested birding strategies, and detailed directions. You’ll also find a photo of a specialty species and sometimes a habitat photo, along with a map.
The quality of writing in the birding strategy sections is a major strength. These are the focal points of each chapter, and they are first-rate. Let’s use the chapter on Algonquin Park as an example. This location is one of Ontario’s top birding sites throughout the year, and it attracts almost a million visitors annually from all over the world. The appeal to birders is vast forests filled with wood-warblers and thrushes, finches in winter, and very accessible boreal bird specialties like Spruce Grouse, Black-backed Woodpecker, Boreal Chickadee, and Canada Jay. The challenge is that this area is very large, about 7,000 square kilometers (~2,700 square miles, larger than Delaware), with seemingly endless options for exploring. Within just four pages of text, the authors lay down a strategy to cover many of the key areas and round up a solid diversity of species, including all the key desired boreal specialties. An impressive feat to say the least.
I was also particularly impressed with the coverage of Point Pelee National Park. While relatively small, the Park contains several key areas, meaning some strategy is required to cover it effectively during migration and make the most of your experience. One aspect I really liked, for example in the chapters on Long Point and Carden Alvar, was the inclusion of links and references to existing regional birdfinding guides, so that people can take a deep dive and explore those areas further.
Another topic the authors consistently highlighted throughout the book was conservation. They have included background on at-risk species and information on corresponding Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas. In a time when birds are facing an increasing number of threats, the authors provide valuable content for a general audience that identifies critical habitats and the species that rely on them.
I suppose it’s customary in book reviews to pick out what could or should have been done differently. To be honest, there is not much worth mentioning. Could it have benefitted from a few more photos? Sure. And it’s possible that a list of key specialties, with short descriptions of where you could find those species, might have been useful. But adding more content would have lengthened this compact and user-friendly guide. In its current form, it serves a general audience well.
One of the best features of the new Best Places to Bird in Ontario is that it reads like superbly distilled advice from friends with a wealth of local birding knowledge. Whether you’re an experienced birder or just starting out, this book will be a valuable resource for your next Ontario birding adventure.
Jody Allair is Director of Citizen Science and Community Engagement at Birds Canada, where he is Co-editor of BirdWatch Canada magazine and Coordinator for eBird Canada. In addition to his work at Birds Canada, Jody has been leading birding tours with Eagle-Eye Tours since 2008. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram at @JodyAllair.