News » Whistler

Bird counts among worst yet

Freezing rain puts Whistler counters to the test



While the 2009 Christmas Bird Counts for Squamish and Whistler were among the worst on record as a result of the weather, there are always some rare exceptions that make it all worth it.

For Whistler the most important finding was three White-tailed Ptarmigan in the Nesters area, spotted by a bird watcher who wasn't even taking part in the count this year because of an illness. Those three birds doubled the number of White-tailed Ptarmigan spotted in Whistler in total since the count got underway in 1990.

But other than that unexpected windfall, count organizer Karl Ricker acknowledged that the Dec. 16 count was the most challenging yet.

"From a weather perspective it was the worst. The freezing rain buggered up everything," he said. "You'd take out your binocs and they would freeze up immediately with ice, then you'd go back to the car to warm them up and the lenses would fog up."

The group on Whistler Mountain had a particularly hard time with winds gusting between 80 and 100 km/h and snow. They counted just three birds all day.

The result was the second worst count in the history of the count in terms of actual birds and species. There were just 971 birds counted and 37 species, with another six species reported during count week - a period that includes three days before and three days after an official count day.

The Christmas Bird Count is a tradition dating back 110 years. It was first started by the National Audubon Society in 1900 to identify and count bird species after the traditional migration period. The goal since the beginning has been to get a sense of each species' range and migration, as well as to assess trends in bird populations.

The amount of data collected each year is huge, with roughly 50,000 bird watchers in 17 countries taking part.

In Whistler, counters split into groups and spread out through the valley, although a handful of people participate by watching their feeders.

Other highlights of the Whistler count include above average sightings of Steller's Jay, American dippers, Varied Thrushes, song sparrows and a record count of 12 Spotted Towhees. Waterbirds were hard to find with most of the lakes frozen over, but there were a few on the River of Golden Dreams and at the north end of Alta Lake where the water was still moving.

Ricker participated in other Sea to Sky counts, including D'Arcy on Dec. 14, Pemberton on Dec. 15 and Squamish on Dec. 20. He also takes part in counts at Chilliwack and Nanaimo, the latter of which was started by his father almost 80 years ago.

The D'Arcy count, while colder, was about par for the course at about minus-15 degrees Celsius but it was clear and the count tracked an average of 43 species.

The biggest surprise of the count was the Clark's Nuthatch, which didn't make any count lists last year. "Normally if you get one you're doing well," said Ricker. "This year we got 59. They were at the feeders, along the roads, everywhere."

Ricker thinks that could be a record for B.C. and possibly Canada.

The count also turned up an American tree sparrow, which is rare, as well as a White-throated sparrow, which is more common to Eastern Canada.

The Pemberton count was excellent this year, with no freezing rain and easy walking through the woods. Counters noted 55 species, which is one below the record, as well as a record of 3,382 birds.

The best sightings include a Clark's nutcracker, a Bewicke's wren, more common to the coastlines, and a pair of Blue-winged teal ducks that Ricker says are bound to cause some controversy as they are more usually found in places like Texas or Florida at this time of year. They also turned up 47 eagles, which is on average for the Pemberton area - despite lower than normal salmon runs, and far fewer eagles in the Squamish area.

The Squamish count on Tuesday was horrible with torrential rains hampering birds and counters alike, resulting in the worst count in history. There were 58 species logged, 10 less than the previous low and far fewer than the normal count of around 80 species.

The count also turned up just 475 eagles, 100 fewer than the previous recorded low. There were no signs of dead salmon carcasses in the water or along waterways, and Ricker is expecting a record low for the official eagle count on Jan. 3.

Some of the Squamish highlights include a Red-breasted Merganser, a Hermit thrush and a Blue jay. The lowlights included two Red-breasted nuthatches when counters can usually expect dozens, and three White-crowned sparrows - down from an average of "hundreds."