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A few surprises in annual bird count


While you can’t judge a book by its cover or the man by the cut of his clothes, it’s a fair assessment that you can generally judge the health of an ecosystem by its birds. They are highly specialized in terms of where they can live and what they can eat, and extremely sensitive to environmental changes.

That’s why coal miners used to bring canaries to work with them. That’s also why Rachel Carson used eagles, brown pelicans, robins, and other bird populations to back up her theories on pesticides, DDT and bio-accumulation.

The Audubon Society, a Boston-based organization founded by ornithologist Frank Chapman in 1989 and named after famed wildlife artist John James Audubon, has held Christmas bird counts since 1899. The society was originally created to protest the use of rare and possibly endangered feathers in ladies’ hats, and the increasing rarity of the most sought after species.

In Whistler, the bird count has gone on for a considerably shorter period of time and most of the ladies’ prefer toques to feathered hats, but the exercise is no less important. With the rate of wetlands development and forestry on the West Coast, bird watchers are keeping their eyes peeled for evidence that our actions may be upsetting bird populations.

Although three bird feeder watchers and one cross-country ski party had yet to report, Whistler bird census organizer Karl Ricker says that this year was a relatively good count.

About 35 people participated in this year’s count on Dec. 19, skiing the mountains and walking local trails with their necks tilted back.

The group counted 3,045 birds, minus the groups that have still to report, and 51 species. Last year, with the sun out and the thermometer in double digits, the count was 5,243 birds and 61 species, which was a record on both counts.

As for unusual sightings, one western gull was spotted. It’s traditional range usually stops somewhere in southern Washington.

There were also a number of new sightings, specifically a northern hawk owl, a band tailed pigeon and a Barrow’s goldeneye. Watchers all sighted a rare northern goshawk at Rebagliati Bay.

They also counted a record number of black-capped chickadees, red-breasted sapsuckers, downy woodpeckers, steller’s jays, Clark’s nutcrackers, northwestern crows, American crows (interior species), American dippers, and red winged blackbirds, which should have gone south a long time ago.

The only negative sighting was Ricker’s car being towed away while he was counting birds in Emerald Estates.

For more information on the Audubon Society or the Christmas Bird Count, visit