Naturespeak 

Autumn migration ends with a crescendo

By Karl Ricker

Whistler Naturalists

Everyone will agree that this autumn was unusual — an exceptionally dry and warm September, and the good weather lingering well into October. Bird migration was stalled by the unusual spell of warm weather, with waterfowl in particular loafing on our interior waterways.

The first autumn storm finally persuaded the birds to move south, though some were reluctant to use the Sea to Sky corridor, or if they did, their movements were at night, failing to stop over at Whistler for a break. Of the 192 species on the autumn checklist for Whistler, only 108 were seen this year. During this period, however, two new species were added to the list, and three other out-of-season local species turned up, but still giving us a lowly recovery of 58 per cent. The species new to Whistler are: a Pacific golden plover seen at close range on the Fitzsimmons Creek delta, and also recorded on the Fraser delta in the same week; the other is a Long-eared owl, seen in daylight at Nicklaus North. There are now 11 Owl species known in the Whistler area, although the Spotted owl has not been seen or heard in years and is now classified as extirpated.

Volumes of migrating species varied. Among the waterfowl, flocks of Mallards and Common mergansers were down slightly, while Green-winged teal and Hooded mergansers were definitely more abundant than in past years. Both species of Scaup and Goldeneyes were decidedly way down in numbers, while Wigeon, Ring-necked duck, Bufflehead, Canada geese, Coots and Loons were on target in numbers expected. All five species of grebes did finally show up after a lack of sightings earlier this year, though their numbers were low. It took a while, but eventually a few Canvasbacks and both species of scoters did appear, but Long-tailed ducks and Snow geese escaped all scrutiny. As usual, Sandpipers were scarce, though a pair of Long-billed dowitchers probed the shoreline muds of Green Lake for nearly two weeks. Gulls were conspicuous by their absence on our lakes. Normally large flocks bathe in Alta Lake during autumn, but with closure of the landfill only one or two small flocks were seen, possibly flying in from Squamish or Pemberton.

Song bird migration was on par with past records — high volumes of robins and song sparrows for a couple of weeks, and juncos and kinglets reappeared from the coniferous forests of mountain slopes. Several species of warblers also passed through in good numbers.

Some good “spots” on rarer species were also garnered: Gadwall, Redhead, and Ruddy duck; Red-breasted merganser; Sandhill crane; Lesser yellowleg (sandpiper); Common tern; Northern waterthrush (warbler); Common redpoll among the flocks of Pine siskins; Northern shrike; and Western meadowlark. However, conspicuous by their absence were Band-tailed pigeon, Mountain blue bird; Horned lark; and all species of finch and crossbills, with the exception of one large flock of Gray-crowned rosy finches. The latter were seen by Rod McLeod at “Wildcard” on Whistler, while feasting on “his” newly-planted grass seed!

Raptors, as always, hold a special appeal to everyone. The osprey nest at Edgewater was vacated exactly on cue during the Thanksgiving weekend. One or two Peregrine falcons and Golden eagles were spotted, but without the landfill to attract their presence Bald eagles had all but disappeared. One or two Cooper’s hawks, seen for several weeks at Nicklaus North and Taluswood, appear to have been feasting on the abundant squirrel population, and several kestrels were again in the Soo Valley.

Residents at Nicklaus North and Tamarisk have been serenaded by two or more Great horned owls for several nights in September/October, but the arrival of heavy wet snow cover has now made their foraging for ground rodents much more difficult. Other owl species, however, have yet to show up, with the exception of the Long-eared, but the Northern pygmy owl will be seen in winter.

November 30 th is the year-end for the birding surveys; December 1 st marks the first day of winter for our fine-feathered friends and the beginning of surveys for 2007; with 30 species tallied so far in the first week.

So how did 2006 stack up overall with its unusual migration seasons to skew the overall trends? Well, the year began with 243 species on record, but four were added, (Long-eared owl, Ross’ goose, Palm warbler and Pacific golden plover) and so, overall, 184 species were recorded, netting at 74.5 per cent sighting ratio. The “recovery” is not bad at all, despite the slack summer and autumn periods, and the result is slightly ahead of last years recovery of 73.6 per cent.

The bird of the year had to be a small flock of Ross’ geese, which are seldom seen in the province, but Mike Thompson and Heather Baines filed an official B.C. rare bird form after seeing them on Green Lake last winter. The big miss this past year were Mew gulls, countered by the reappearance of Rock pigeon, listed as locally extirpated, but the pigeon created a stir when discovered by alert landfill employees on the roof trusses of their compactor building. However, plastic bands on both legs indicate that it was a racing pigeon which had gone off course.

The annual Christmas Bird Count is today; if you see an unusual bird in your yard please phone Karl (604-938-1107) this evening in order that it can be included on our count list to be submitted to Bird Studies Canada/National Audubon Society offices on Dec. 18 th . The results will be posted promptly on the Internet for all of the 85 count areas in British Columbia. This province is the fourth biggest contributor to the Christmas Bird Count for all of North and Central America; only Ontario, Texas and California have more count localities.

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