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Bird Count goes to the wolves

Unusual findings for Christmas Bird Count

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There are always unexpected findings in the Whistler Christmas Bird Count – a rare species that hadn’t migrated south just yet, or common species that were impossible to find.

This year the story was a little different for bird watchers, who were frustrated by one of their worst counts since 1996. Without about 2,200 gulls in the landfill area, the grand total for the other 43 species recorded would have been about 1,100.

"The count was not as good as previous years, but not as bad as some years either," said birder Karl Ricker, who also participated in counts in Pemberton and D’Arcy.

"I spent a long time at the dump estimating, going square by square… because the dump is closing I want to see what we’re going to lose in that area."

In addition to gulls, the dump has starlings, ravens and other species.

The most unusual sighting, however, was the full grown timber wolf that Ricker spotted trying to squeeze under the fence to get at the gulls.

"That was a highlight for me. A little bit unnerving, but a rare sighting nevertheless," he said.

A pair of river otters were also spotted near Green Lake.

The rare bird of the day was a Red-necked grebe, the first one that local birders have ever recorded in a Christmas count. They are found in the area, but usually head south during the autumn months.

Ricker doesn’t know why the count numbers were down, but said weather might have been a factor, with high winds, low temperatures and freezing rain the week before the count, followed by warming trends and a Pineapple Express of warm, wet air from the Pacific Ocean.

"We had a polar wind on Sunday (Dec. 12), really biting, and I think that sent a lot of birds out of here. The count was on Tuesday, so bird-wise, it seemed like it was mid-January out there in terms of species and where they were found," said Ricker. "Birds have been out of phase all year, three to four weeks out of season, so something is going on. What we don’t know."

On the raptor front, Ricker observed a Red-tailed hawk at the dump, while another group spotted a Bald eagle. Although owls are generally rare, three Pygmy owls were spotted during the count, including one on Whistler Mountain that was feasting on a White-tailed Ptarmigan.

The mystery of the day was the Pine Grosbeak. As a species that usually is only spotted at treeline, several birds were spotted at valley bottoms in Whistler, Pemberton and D’Arcy. Pemberton watchers counted 65 of the birds in the valley, while Whistler counted just five.

The Pemberton count did better than Whistler with 48 species counted, but it wasn’t a local record. The Pine grosbeak’s were the highlight, as well as 70 Bald eagles upstream in the Birkenhead river complex. Just three gulls were spotted, but then Pemberton doesn’t have a landfill.

In D’Arcy, 45 species were counted, and the rare sighting was a Northern goshawk.

The Squamish Count took place on Sunday, Dec. 19, along with the annual eagle count, and organizers were hoping to top the previous year’s record of 2,400 eagles.

There are still two counts pending for the coast. The Lillooet count will take place on Dec. 26, and organizers are still looking for volunteers. Contact Ian Routley if you can take part in the Christmas count there.

The Bowen Island and Howe Sound counts are taking place on Dec. 28.

Dick Canning, the B.C. co-ordinator for the annual bird counts, said there have definitely been some unusual sightings this year.

"There’s a general trend for whatever reason, the number of forest bird numbers in the alpine areas is way down, and many of those species are showing up in the valleys. Some species that are more common, we haven’t seen a lot of this year," he said.

"Other interesting things have been reported. Because it’s been relatively mild this year… we’re seeing species in the Interior that should have moved south or to the coast by now."

In addition, most of the counts around the province took place over the weekend, and high winds on Sunday played havoc with the numbers.

"Bird counting is weather dependent, but there’s no question we’re having an unusual year."

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