To Count a Mockingbird ...
Local bird lovers take stock of Whistler's birds
By Andrew Mitchell
If a group of men and women with binoculars should appear in the woods behind your house on the morning of Dec. 21 hooting and whistling, don't flatter yourself. It's a group of local bird watchers, conducting their annual Audubon Society Christmas bird census.
Last year, seven participating groups counted some 3,130 birds, representative of 48 different species, while snowshoeing through local forests, cross-country-skiing along valley trails, skiing down Whistler and Blackcomb mountains and sitting at the window watching the feeder. For Whistler bird watchers, it was a banner year.
According to Karl Ricker, the organizer of this years' event, "last year's record count for species just might beat out Banff, and most certainly Aspen, and if our lakes do not freeze over completely we have a fighting chance of doing so again."
More than 42,000 bird watchers across North America took part in the last annual bird count, collecting data that allows the Audubon Society to track resident bird populations, monitor changes, and to keep an eye out for any species that may be at risk.
"The reason we do our count during the winter is that the migrant birds have gone, which gives us a clearer view of the resident bird populations," says Mike Thompson, the birding co-ordinator for the new Whistler Naturalists Society and a long-time Christmas bird count participant. "Believe me, it isn't the thrill or joy of waking up early and working outside all day when it's 30 below."
Although Whistler is only a small part of the census, its proximity to a wide variety of habitats, including the ocean, boreal forests, wetlands and mountains, means that the valley is home to a wide variety of birds — many of which are rare or endangered.
"We're right in the middle of the Pacific Flyway," says Ricker. "The Whistler valley bottom is home to numerous indigenous bird fauna, such as ground nesting birds and songbirds, which we are interested in protecting.
"Every year we turn up something that's unusual. Last year it was a group of mallard ducks that would usually have migrated south months before. A few years ago, we spotted a Virginia Rail. It was a very exciting find, not just for us, but it was also one of the highlights in the Audubon summary. When you find something rare in nature at Christmas time, it's very exciting. It blows your mind."
According to Ricker, local bird-watchers, Audubon members and environmentalists are only beginning to get a handle on Whistler's bird populations. When enough local data is collected, the group will use that data to lobby for habitat conservation, especially where wetlands are concerned. "With all the development, something will come up."
This year marks the 100th year of the Christmas Bird Count, which was started in 1899 by Audubon Society founder Frank Chapman, a prominent ornithologist from Boston. The society, which is named after John James Audubon, a naturalist and wildlife painter, was created after a group of citizens united to voice their outrage against the slaughter of herons and egrets, whose feathers were used to decorate women’s hats. It's goal is to promote the conservation of birds, other wildlife and their habitats.
In past years, the Audubon Society has been a powerful lobby for wildlife protection and habitat conservation across North and South America, and has been credited with pulling a number of species back from the brink of extinction.
"Some birds are particularly sensitive to the environment," says Ricker. "The Blue Heron was a bird in trouble until it was discovered that their eggs weren't hatching properly because of chemicals in their water system. In this way we can use Blue Heron populations as a warning sign."
"It's nice to see birds of prey making a comeback, for example," says Thompson. "Thanks to the elimination of many chemicals and DDT, various peregrines and raptors are moving down the endangered list."
For the purposes of the count, local birders and volunteers will be divided into seven parties: the West Side Road Party, the Whistler Creek Party, the White Gold Party, the Emerald to Soo Valley Party, the Village and Benchlands Party, the Blackcomb Ski Party and the Whistler Mountain Ski Party. In addition, there will be an early morning Owling Party, from 5 to 7 a.m., that will be led by Ricker.
"I'm going to try out my owl calls, and see if I can't get some kind of response from the forest," says Ricker. "If that doesn't work, I have a tape of owl calls. I'll put in the tape deck of my car, open the doors and crank the volume."
Last year, the group spotted a Great Horned Owl and Northern Pygmy Owl using these techniques, both of which were firsts for the Whistler group.
If you are interested in lending your eyes and ears to help in this years' census, or if you have a bird feeder and little free time on Dec. 21, call Mike Thompson at 932-5010. Experienced birders are also needed to lead two of the valley parties.