By Karl Ricker
The winter was a tough one for Whistler’s fine feathered friends. Were it not for the Rabanco trucks being filled with Whistler’s waste, and for a few yard feeders, we would have had only crows, ravens, jays, and a few chickadees to keep us company for the winter. True, we netted 49 species on the Christmas bird count, but several have not been seen since then.
Abnormal snow cover and vast expanses of white on Whistler valley lakes were countered by rivers and large streams remaining open for the winter. Few water fowl stuck it out despite the limited pondage. Ring-necked ducks, Hooded mergansers and Buffleheads were the usual ones — as always because a few of each hang around in most winters. Two Green-winged teal, however, kept refuge at Whistler Air’s dock; normally this species does not winter over in our waters. Three to seven Trumpeter swans played hide and seek with all observers throughout the winter, seen weekly anywhere between the outlet of Green Lake and the Millar Creek wetlands, but most often at the River of Golden Dreams. Other ducks testing our winter for brief periods were Lesser scaup, Common goldeneye and Common merganser, but in the last week of February a flock of 20-30 Canada geese arrived to indicate their start on spring migration. A few days later a Mallard showed up at the Montebello wetlands, but generally waterfowl numbers have been low throughout the winter from Squamish to Lillooet.
A few raptors have been here all winter. Bald eagles were seen every week, thanks to the abundance of gulls that have now discovered how to swoop into the compactor station with each emptying and refilling of the trucks. Northern pygmy owls were spotted weekly on the ski runs and on the valley floor preying on the large one or two flocks of Common redpolls with a few Pine siskins mixed in with them. These rare visitors from the interior Boreal forest zone are feasting on the abundance of small nuts or seeds hanging on the alders. Game birds have been tough to find all winter but Blue (sooty) grouse have been drumming their wings recently to signify the start of spring mating season, and one very bold one had an unfortunate argument with a Ski-doo at Northwest Passage last week.
Woodpeckers were also hard to find this winter unless you were at the right feeder; my suet blocks failed to draw any. A Red-breasted sapsucker was a lucky sighting by Jim Wharin; otherwise a few Downy or Hairy or Flicker woodpeckers were seen. What song birds that did stick it out for the winter were those found usually at feeders. Otherwise a stroll along the valley trail would net at best a few chickadees or jays. Several feeders at homes near forest edge had Gray jays as well as Stellers; juncos and Red-breasted nuthatches were also at a few, while House finches were seen almost weekly at Nicklaus North.
The appearance of robins usually notes the first sign of spring. Well, the first was seen prematurely on Feb. 7 th at Adventures West and one more showed up a week later at Nicklaus North. Meanwhile, several flocks of raucous Red-winged blackbirds have moved in, and so the quietude of winter has come to an end.
It took much searching to tally 62 species over this winter, yielding a paltry 53 per cent “recovery” of the 117 on our winter check list. The bird of the winter was a Sora rail spotted by Nigel and Shelly Matthews beside the Valley Trail near Meadow Park at a small creek crossing during Christmas week. It should have been in California or Arizona by then! It was indeed a tough winter on our bird populations; only the most hardy species hung around and those that did come and go will be back once the waterways re-open and the sun provides some 12 hour days of warmth.
During the winter several residences with bird feeders have had a feline visitor. For two days in January I had a female bobcat on my front deck swiping at the few birds and squirrels that came to the suet block. She couldn’t snatch the Chestnut-backed chickadees or juncos but my nuisance squirrels disappeared. Fully fed, the bobcat moved on to Taluswood and at last report was performing the same services at Mike Sparks’ feeders.