Birding Through the Seasons in High Park

by Ron Luft

Besides the omnipresent Ring-billed Gulls, Mallards, Mute Swans, Canada Geese, Starlings, House Sparrows, Rock Pigeons, Mourning Doves and Crows, there is a wide variety of birdlife in High Park. The Park is active year round. The ‘all time’ list for the park is extensive at over 260 species but that includes many rarities and exotic transients.

Northern Cardinal (male). Photo: James Kamstra

Year-round Birds

Other birds that can be found all year include: Northern Cardinal, Blue Jay, Black-capped Chickadee, Hairy and Downy Woodpecker and American Robin. Most of these species can be found throughout the park. In winter a favourite hangout for many is the eastern side of the allotment gardens and the western side of the Duck Ponds, particularly where Spring Creek flows into the pond. Several hawk species occur throughout the year in the park and occasionally nest here. These include the dramatic Red-tailed Hawk, the furtive Cooper’s Hawk and the diminutive American Kestrel. Several owl species may pass through the park during migration. Screech Owl nest regularly. With persistent searching during October and November, one may find tiny Saw-whet Owl concealed in a shrub or conifer.


A real highlight of birding in High Park happens in the fall. The Hawk Watch Hill is so named because observers monitor daily hawk migrations from Labour Day through to November (see High Park Hawk Watch). About a dozen species are seen each year including Osprey, Golden Eagle, Bald Eagle and thousands of Broad-winged Hawks. Hawk Hill is immediately north of the large parking lot beside the Grenadier Café. Most of our breeding species depart in the fall but many other migrants and winter residents arrive. The list of migrants passing through in fall is long and it is really a matter of timing and luck as to what can be seen. Between October and freeze-up of Grenadier Pond (late December), it is worth scanning the pond with binoculars for waterfowl such as Grebes and many duck species such as Mergansers, Northern Shovelers, Buffleheads, and Long-tailed Duck. White- and Red-breasted Nuthatches, Cedar Waxwings, Purple Finches and Goldfinches are also seen most frequently in the fall, although some occur at other times of the year as well. Many of the smaller birds can often be found in the areas such as Spring Creek Ravine (check both sides of the valley), Allotment Gardens and the Duck Ponds.

Red-tailed Hawk (juvenile). Photo: Nancy Shanoff


Gulls on Grenadier Pond. Photo: Katherine Pawling

Winter is not nearly as bleak in the park as one might expect. Bird sightings vary from year to year depending on the weather. The sites listed earlier all merit searching throughout the winter months. Besides the smaller birds there may be Owls seeking cover in Pines and Spruces and tree hollows. Look both high and low and with patience. Any open water will attract birds in winter so check the creeks and ponds. Shelter is at a premium in this season, so conifer, dense thickets and tangled shrubbery are favourite spots for winter birds.


This season is by far the most exciting and anticipated time of the year. Migration begins in March with Grackles, Red-winged Blackbirds and Robins. In April and early May, Brown Thrashers, a few thrushes, flycatchers and finally some early warblers arrive. In May things really get rolling - 25 to 30 species of warblers may be recorded during the month. Add more Flycatchers, Vireos, Baltimore Oriole, Scarlet Tanager, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Indigo Buntings, and the Park is alive with flashes of brilliant colours. Bird migration will be hectic until early June. Hotspots include the eastern shore and hills of Grenadier Pond, Spring Creek Ravine and all wetlands.

Great Egret. Photo: Iain Fleming


Oddly, the time of year that the Park is most active with people is perhaps the least interesting for birders. Spring migrants have moved north, leaving a few breeding species such as orioles, thrushes and wrens. Summer is dominated by Red-wingeds, Grackles, Starlings, and Robins. Keep a watch out for Northern Flickers in fields and trees. At this time Grenadier Pond and both duck ponds become favourite feeding areas for Black-crowned Night-Herons, Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets. Occasionally a Green Heron may also be seen. In recent years the Duck Ponds and Grenadier Pond have been adopted by several pairs of Wood Ducks. The male is one of the most striking and beautiful birds anywhere. Young Woodies stay until October before dispersing.

Success with Birding

Birds are aware of your presence long before you have a chance to see them. So, talk and walk quietly.

Take extra care when in a potential or active nesting area. It’s hard enough for birds to compete with each other for mates and space; human interference causes more stress.

Birdwatching at Grenadier Pond. Photo: Bob Yukich

To help with identification, learn to quickly assess its general size (in relation to a sparrow and crow), its shape (especially its beak and tail), and its distinguishing physical markings. The colour of plumage varies not only between sexes, but also between seasons and between adults and juveniles.

Black-and-white Warbler. Photo: Steven Rose

Often you’ll hear a bird before you see it. Use your ears to detect where it is. Follow the sound with your eyes. Walk quietly up to tree or ground where the bird song or sound is coming from. Don’t go too close or the bird will fly away. Try to see the bird with your eyes before using your binoculars.

Get binoculars with a sufficiently wide field of view to be able to locate the bird and follow its movement, but also sufficient magnification to be able to study it. 8x35 is a good choice, but try it before you buy it. A field guide and checklist are also useful.

For some birds, you’ll need to look up. But don’t forget about poison ivy and other park users.

Black-crowned Night-Heron (juvenile). Photo: Iain Fleming


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