On a trip to Alaska shortly after finishing high school, Mark Bauman noticed a little grey bird hopping around in a mountain stream. It was a nondescript bird, a bit fatter than a sparrow, but it wasn’t anywhere in his bird guide. Bauman was intrigued and bought another guide, where he learned it was a Dipper, a bird that walks on riverbeds and dives underwater in search of bugs and fish eggs.
That little grey bird turned Bauman into a dedicated birdwatcher. He has a life list of birds he’s spotted that reached 500 this year and includes exotic species like painted buntings from Florida, trogans from Costa Rica and todies from the Caribbean.
But Bauman does most of his bird watching closer to home. His house in St. Jacobs is a stone’s throw from the Health Valley Trail, and he has a backyard list of birds, spotted within half a kilometre of home, that numbers 154.
“I just think how fortunate we are to be able to walk five minutes from our house and be surrounded by nature,” Bauman said. “There’s so many places right here in Woolwich Township that you can do that, we’re fortunate with the kilometres of trail that we have.”
Born and raised in St. Jacobs, Bauman has never moved more than a mile away. There were plenty of natural areas nearby to stir his interest in wildlife growing up, and his family also went on camping trips every year, usually to provincial parks across Ontario.
When the Mill Race footpath became part of the Trans-Canada Trail 10 years ago, Bauman merged his interest in the outdoors with his carpentry skills and helped build bridges for the trail. He’s been a member of the Woolwich Trails Group ever since.
Woolwich has around 75 kilometres of trail, and all of them are good for birdwatchers, Bauman said. Trails along water, including the Mill Race Trail in St Jacobs and the Kissing Bridge Trail in Elmira are particularly good sites.
“Your patience will determine how good a birding spot it is,” he said.
It was about 15 years ago that Bauman spotted a long-eared owl along the Mill Race trail. His oldest son, seven or eight at the time, was interested in raptors and wanted to see it. They went out early the next morning and peered up into each cedar tree, hunting in vain for the owls. Bauman was just about to give up and go to work when his son tugged his arm and pointed upward. As soon as he looked up, he spotted the owl, sitting about 10 feet above them. Then he realized that his son, who was shorter, wasn’t seeing the same bird he was. He crouched and realized there was a pair of owls staring back at the pair of them.
Bird watching is a pretty safe hobby, but once or twice Bauman has found himself in a tight situation. One fall he was birding near Point Pelee during hunting season. He was in a no hunting zone, but apparently a hunter didn’t see the signs.
“There was a bang and all of sudden there were splashes in the water in front of me where the shotgun pellets were landing,” Bauman said.
Most of the time, bird watching is relaxing more than it’s an adrenaline rush. It’s also an inexpensive hobby; all it takes is a pair of binoculars and a bird guide.
“A $100 investment and you’re set for life,” Bauman said. “Birding is something you can do anytime you want. As soon as you walk out of the house in the morning, or even inside the house; when you go for a walk or when you’re driving in the car.”
Bauman will be leading a two-hour birding hike along the Health Valley Trail on Apr. 19, one of many activities organized by the Woolwich Trails Group.