by Glen Herbert
Not all independent schools have a lake. We do. We also have forest, and fields. We have a few erratics, huge boulders that were moved here within a glacier and set gently in place when the glacier melted. We have lots of wildlife, including turtles and fish. There was a salamander living in the teepee last year, and a family of deer living just off the Robert Carreau Memorial Trail. There are likely dozens of species of trees. Students, in partnership with the Muskoka Watershed, are soon to begin a tree survey of the campus, and then we’ll know for sure.
In that and much else, we have access to a rich breadth of the natural history of the region, there for the inspiration, for the study, for the wonder of it all. And birds. Should you ever wonder how many different species of birds have been spotted in the region, the Cornell Ornithology Lab keeps a perpetual log. The earliest entry is from 1876. The most recent was this week. Staff and students of the school have contributed over the years, though only the newest sightings of each species show, so some of their efforts have been overwritten. There have been 303 species spotted in our region to date.
The oldest entry in the log was a sighting of a passenger pigeon. It doesn't include the name of the person who spotted it, so we can't know who it was that A) saw the bird and B) thought to write it down and send it in. But it was a bigger deal than he or she imagined. Once so plentiful that they literally blackened the sky, the last passenger pigeons died in 1914, becoming an avatar of poor environmental stewardship. Only the Dodo is more infamous. The entry in the Cornell log is like a message in a bottle from another time telling us to pay attention, to relish what we have. Because you never know.
On a happier note, there have been 243 species spotted in Muskoka since New Year's Day 2020, and none of them have gone extinct since. There are lots of familiar faces—sparrows and robins—as well as some oddballs, such as snipes and gadwalls. Someone spotted an ovenbird. The Cornell blurb says that it "lacks vibrant colours, but compensates with an enormous voice." (You go guy!) It winters in the Caribbean and was logged on the same day as a pintail, which breeds in the Arctic. These are citizens of the hemisphere, stopping here for a sit and a snack.
Counting birds is more than just trivia. As the researchers at Cornell note, "All bird observations are valuable, and every sighting—no matter how common the species—is important for understanding where and when birds occur around the globe." They are also key indicators of environmental health and biological diversity. "Researchers download these data, and their scientific findings are used to make more informed conservation decisions." Nice. Go birds!