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Naturespeak: Highs and lows of corridor Christmas bird counts

the christmas Bird Count (CBC) was started in the year 1900, replacing the old Christmas Bird Hunt.
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counting crows The outome of the 2019 Christmas bird counts in the Sea to Sky was hardly encouraging, with a two-week cold snap in November sending many local birds southward, according to the Whistler Naturalists. photo by bob brett

the christmas Bird Count (CBC) was started in the year 1900, replacing the old Christmas Bird Hunt. The CBC is generally accepted as the best tool available for assessing long-term trends in the early winter bird populations of North and Central America. Each annual regional count occurs between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5, which ensures reasonable consistency among populations of resident, rather than migratory, birds.

The outlook for the Christmas bird counts in the corridor was hardly encouraging. A two-week cold snap in November sent many of our birds southward as shown by monthly counts two to three weeks beforehand. It was not as grim as feared, but most counts in the province showed below average results—five to 10 per cent drops in species numbers was typical but total volume of all species counted showed bigger declines. Whistler saw 38 species, a drop from an average of 40; Pemberton listed 51 species, a decline from 54; and Squamish saw 65, a drop from 71.

During Whistler's count on Dec. 14 waterfowl were above average with the American wigeon ducks at a record number of 28. Fifteen bald eagles was also way above the average of six. Flickers, black-capped chickadees, American dippers and gray jays were also above average counts. Two pygmy owls and a merlin were seen but the "bird of the day" was a northern goshawk seen on only four of our previous 29 counts. Kudos to Liz Barrett, and to Chris Dale who snagged a photo of a yellow-eyed herring gull at the compactor site.

So, what reduced the volume of the count? Scant pine siskins and only three Oregon juncos—our usual high-volume birds—and the counts on ravens and crows were way down! A frustrating bird was our first-ever winter surf scoter, seen almost every day before and after count day off the Fitzsimmons delta, but not on count day!

At Pemberton the volume of birds counted was a few hundred below the usual 2,000-plus of previous years. However, there was a strong waterfowl presence, including trumpeter swans and bufflehead ducks. The bald eagle count was 46, just below the eighteen-year average of 50, and so, up valley from Squamish the overall number of eagles is stable. The surprise "birds of the day" were two sandhill cranes, a first-ever winter record; they should have been basking in Texas!

The Squamish count is the region's oldest initiated in 1980. There are always great expectations for the count because of the foraging bald eagles, which average over 1,000 in the Christmas count. Alas, the count of eagles for this Christmas was a paltry 286. Ouch. But Squamish's "bird of the day" was a new one, a streaky swamp sparrow usually found east of the continental divide.

Thank you to Shawn Mason for coordinating Whistler's CBC this year and all the additional volunteers that make all the counts happen in the corridor. We're always looking for volunteers to help with our bird monitoring programs—no experience necessary. Our next monthly bird count is Saturday, Feb. 1 at 9 a.m. meeting at the bottom of Lorimer Road. Hope to see you there!

Naturespeak is prepared by the Whistler Naturalists. To learn more about Whistler's natural world go to Whistlernaturalists.ca.




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