Christmas bird count is quality over quantity 

Bird watchers count 52 species, just 843 birds

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The sun came out for this year's Christmas Bird Count in Whistler on Dec. 14, which turned out to be a very unusual count for several different reasons.

One reason was the sheer number of species reported by the eight field parties and 19 birders, with 52 species located. That's the second-highest number of species recorded in the 21 years that a count has been held in Whistler, with a total of 58 species reported back in 1999.

But while the number of species was up, the actual number of birds was the third-lowest in count history with just 843 birds. To put that into perspective, the average is around 2,500 birds and the 2011 count was 6,106 (largely helped by counts of over 4,500 Pine siskins).

"There were no big swarms of anything out there," said count leader Karl Ricker. "It was more like a D'Arcy count — less than 1,000 birds and a lot of species."

The highlights of this year's count were the first ever white-winged scoter — a large, black duck with a distinctive orange beak — spotted on a count day.

Also unique was the Townsend's Solitaire, which is typically not seen in this area outside the summer breeding season.

Despite lakes freezing over, there were large numbers of waterfowl reported, 13 different species including a Tundra swan — only seen once before on count day. As well, Trumpeter swans passed through, with one formation including 16 of the birds.

Pine grosbeaks were another highlight with 24 counted — the highest number for a Christmas Bird Count.

Songbirds, however, were hard to find — some of the counters could hear them as they tromped through the woods and along trails, but they couldn't get any visual confirmation. As well, there were birders on both Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains who failed to find any of the usual alpine birds, finding a few Gray jays and one raven.

The count was also lucky enough to find a few interesting owls, which are rare for count days. Two Pygmy owls were seen, including one in the Nicklaus North area and another in the Benchlands. It went missing on count day, but during count week (three days before and after count day), a Snowy Owl was seen on Alta Lake.

Also found during count week were a Merlin, which is a small falcon, a Pileated woodpecker and a chickadee on the mountain — a species usually seen around the Crystal Hut in large numbers, but conspicuously absent this year.

The Squamish Christmas Bird Count took place on Saturday with an all-day snowstorm making things difficult for spotters. Counters found 74 species, which is close to average and they added 11 more species during count week — including a Snowy owl of their own.

Numbers were also around average although the count for Bald eagles, 582, is well below average. That's not to say that they aren't around, said Ricker.

"The snowfall wouldn't let us see any distance into the trees at all," he said. "The count is way down, not necessarily because there weren't any eagles but because we couldn't see the things."

Squamish does a dedicated eagle count every January, which has also seen declining numbers.

Some unusual finds include a Snow goose, Trumpeter swans, Ruffed Grouse and one Bonaparte gull, which was a first for Squamish. They had two species of loons, Pacific and Red-throated, a Gardiner shrike, a Lincoln sparrow and White-winged crossbills that are usually more common for Whistler.

Of all the finds, the one the Audubon Society (which collects count data from across North American) will find most interesting is the tally of Evening grosbeaks, one in Squamish and 18 in Whistler.

"Evening grosbeaks have been in decline across the continent for years, and they're quite worried about them," said Ricker.

Ricker thanked all of the participants in this year's count, and gave special credit to Marcia Danielson and Heather Baines from Squamish for finding the Evening grosbeaks and Pine grosbeaks.

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