Owls, birds of prey highlight Christmas Bird Count 

November cold spell blamed for low numbers

If it wasn't for a large number of gulls at the Callaghan waste transfer station, local bird count organizer Karl Ricker says the Dec. 14, 2010 Christmas Bird Count would have been the worst in the count's 19-year history.

The annual census of Whistler birds is held in conjunction with bird counts across North and South America, with the Audubon Society collecting the data in order to identify which species are at risk of extinction or recovering as a result of conservation measures. It's been held in Whistler since 1991, with 1,190 birds counted in that first year.

Since then the number of counters and birds has increased, with an average of 41 species and roughly 2,500 birds. However, this year counters only spotted 34 different species of birds in the Whistler area and a total of roughly 1,550 birds. Without the roughly 958 gulls counted at the waste transfer station it would have been lean pickings.

"Some parties were in the woods for two hours before they counted their first bird," said Ricker. "The November arctic outflow did a nice job of clearing things out, basically."

For several days in November the temperatures dropped below minus 10 degrees Celsius, with high winds creating a wind chill that felt like minus 20 degrees. Ricker believes that a lot of birds left the valley during that event, given that other counts in the region - Pemberton, Squamish, D'Arcy/Devine - were more or less average.

There were a few highlights to report, mainly involving predatory birds.

The Whistler count recorded 44 Bald eagles, which is well above the count average of five. Most of these were spotted around the waste transfer station. They may be feeding on the gulls.

The counters also spotted a record of eight Red-tailed hawks.

Pygmy owls also appear to be making a comeback. Whistler crews spotted one Northern pygmy owl on count day. The week before an owl was rescued by Village Hosts - possibly after hitting a window. As well, three Pygmy owls were spotted in Pemberton and three more in the D'Arcy/Devine area.

The Whistler count also tallied a rare Northern shrike.

Despite the fact that most waterways are not frozen over, Ricker says the number of waterfowls was low with just one of five species that are typically seen.

The counters also put out a call to anyone who may have seen a White tailed ptarmigan - once common, but increasingly rare. If counters were successful, and Ricker believes there are still birds in the valley, it might have been the only one counted in North America.

The Evening grosbeak, which is listed as a species of concern, also failed to appear in any of the local counts. However, the on-mountain counters managed to spot 20 Pine grosbeaks, which ties the record for Whistler.

Stranger still was the absence of Pine siskins - the little birds that are frequently seen pecking away at highway gravel to aid their digestion. They are typically in flocks of hundreds. One year the Whistler counters logged 3,600 of the siskins, but this year they came up empty.

The other counts were generally average. On Dec. 15 in Pemberton the counters logged 54 different species, in normal numbers.

Some of the unusual results for Pemberton include 20 Eurasian collared doves, which should be in Florida right about now.

The Pemberton counters also logged their first American goldfinch, first American tree sparrows and first Chirping sparrows.

The three pygmy owls was a record for the area. Other rare finds include two Black headed grosbeaks and a Cassins Finch. Between 40 to 50 eagles were also reported.

The D'Arcy/Devine count logged 42 species, which is average, and almost 660 birds. Counters also noted a large number of eagles, three pygmy owls and one rare report of a Golden eagle. The counters also went looking for a Great grey owl, the largest species of owl, which had been spotted earlier in the week but disappeared on count day.

The Whistler count had the assistance of nine feeder watchers and 12 bird counters on foot and skis - shy of the 18 Ricker says they need to do a proper census of the area.



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