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bird counting

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If a group of men and women with binoculars should appear in the woods behind your house on the morning of Dec. 21 hooting and whistling, don't flatter yourself. It's a group of local bird watchers, conducting their annual Audubon Society Christmas bird census. The data collected will allow the Audubon Society to track resident bird populations, monitor changes, and to keep an eye out for any species that may be at risk. "The reason we do our count during the winter is that the migrant birds have gone, which gives us a clearer view of the resident bird populations," says Michael Thompson, birding co-ordinator for the new Whistler Naturalists Society and a long-time Christmas bird count participant. "Believe me, it isn't the thrill or joy of waking up early and working outside all day when it's 30 below." For the purposes of the count, local birders and volunteers will be divided into seven parties: the West Side Road Party, the Whistler Creek Party, the White Gold Party, the Emerald to Soo Valley Party, the Village and Benchlands Party, the Blackcomb Ski Party and the Whistler Mountain Ski Party. In addition, there will be an early morning Owling Party, from 5 to 7 a.m., that will be led by Karl Ricker. But the group still needs more eyes, lots of them, to watch feeders in particular. Anyone interested in helping out with this year’s census can call Thompson, by Sunday evening, at 932-5010. Experienced birders are also needed to lead two of the valley parties. Last year, seven participating groups counted some 3,130 birds, representative of 48 different species, while snowshoeing through local forests, cross-country-skiing along valley trails, skiing down Whistler and Blackcomb mountains and sitting at the window watching their feeders. For Whistler bird watchers, it was a banner year. According to Ricker, the organizer of this year’s event, "last year's record count for species just might beat out Banff, and most certainly Aspen, and if our lakes do not freeze over completely we have a fighting chance of doing so again." Although Whistler is only a small part of the census, its proximity to a wide variety of habitats, including the ocean, boreal forests, wetlands and mountains, means that the valley is home to a wide variety of birds — many of which are rare or endangered. "We're right in the middle of the Pacific Flyway," says Ricker. "The Whistler valley bottom is home to numerous indigenous bird fauna, such as ground nesting birds and songbirds, which we are interested in protecting. "Every year we turn up something that's unusual. Last year it was a group of mallard ducks that would usually have migrated south months before. A few years ago, we spotted a Virginia Rail. It was a very exciting find, not just for us, but it was also one of the highlights in the Audubon summary. When you find something rare in nature at Christmas time, it's very exciting. It blows your mind."

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