Pine siskins dominant in Whistler during winter 2007/08 

Whistler Naturalists

Winter birding was slow this year. The arrival of heavy snow and subsequent lake freeze-up in early December sent the songbirds and waterfowl on their way south, leaving only the hardy winter species to be seen in January.

After the early February storms, migrants re-appeared to take an early run on spring. Red-winged blackbirds and Canada geese led the parade, beginning in mid-February, but soon to follow were robins — a sure sign that winter was winding down, despite the lack of open ground or open water.

The finch family was dominant during the winter, consisting not only of finches, but also crossbills, grosbeaks, redpolls and the ubiquitous Pine siskin. The latter are easily seen flocking into alder trees to reap seeds out of those brown fuzzy catkins, and then taking refuge in the evergreens when feeding ceases.

Being asked repeatedly as to what are the birds at roadside, where there are patches of “pea” gravel (granules, grit) to pick up for their digestive system, the culprits are siskins, along with a few Red crossbills. Siskins are gregarious, cruising about in flocks of 20 to 200 during winter. They disperse on upper mountain slopes during summer.

Were it not for the finch family our winter birds would have dwindled down to a few juncos, jays, nuthatches and chickadees, seen mainly at a few feeders. Of course, crows and the House sparrows around the coffee shops in the town centre are the other obvious birds.

Over the winter season a sparse 64 species were tallied, out of 106 registered over the years when weather was warmer, and the landfill was an open-ended smorgasbord. Among the waterfowl, Trumpeter swans plied the River of Golden Dreams and Millar Creek wetlands, along with a few diving ducks (Bufflehead, Hooded merganser). Raptors were few despite the potential feast provided by the siskins. A few Bald eagles have been at the compactor site since mid-January while a solitary Northern goshawk, and Cooper’s hawk at Black Tusk Village, were the other main marauders. Grouse sightings were nil; White-tailed ptarmigan on Whistler, however, turned up in weekly reports.

Gulls have now found the new compactor site, arriving in big numbers, though only the Glacous-winged and hybrids are there, with the exception of one lonely Herring gull. Woodpeckers have been shy throughout the season though four species were eventually tallied, with the Pileated appearing in late February.

Among the sparrow family, Spotted towhee and Oregon juncos were constantly seen at feeders while Song sparrows began their melodious singing in late February — another sign of spring on its way.

Our winter was highlighted with 10 species of finches. Among them are the large, colourful and noisy Evening grosbeaks, which have restored their presence after years of decline. A new addition to our winter list is the Cassin’s finch, an interior species, seen and fully-documented by Sean Aldcroft on Blackcomb Mountain during our Christmas bird count. Melodious House finches have hung out at Nicklaus North throughout the winter.

But let’s face it, were it not for the “clouds” of Pine siskins it would have been a very dull winter for birders.

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