A decrease in bird numbers over winter is hardly unusual, especially in snowbound valleys and frozen-over waterways. However, at the start of this winter in Whistler we had a good indicator that it would be tougher than unusual, thanks to a brutal polar outflow wind in November that sent many birds on their way south.
The Christmas Bird Count on Dec. 14 verified our hunch; species numbers (35 on count day and another seven in count week) were well below average and the number of birds was way down. Not surprisingly, numbers continued to drop thereafter.
Eleven species seen at the Christmas Bird Count have not been seen since then, and another ten dropped out of sight over the month of February. Only five species were added that were not seen on the Christmas count.
Most surprising was the absence of Trumpeter swans for the entire winter - their first no-shows in the last 14 years. Other surprises are the disappearance of hardy starlings (even at the Compacter Station) and House sparrows in the town centre during February.
Yes, it has been a tough winter. Songbirds in particular have been hard to find, although the bird feeders at Toad Hollow have cornered most of those that are still around.
The glaring absentees at the feeders are members of the finch family - Pine siskins, Crossbills, House and Purple finches and Redpolls.
On the other hand, the counts of Steller's Jays at the feeders exceed 20 on some days.
There are few highlights on the birding scene for this winter. Two waterfowl have made the top award for persistence despite the rigors of the season. A Pied-billed Grebe and a Bufflehead Duck toughed it out in the upper reaches of The River of Golden Dreams throughout the entire three-month period. An American Tree sparrow, which is a first for Whistler at this time of year, was also spotted on Feb. 12. A small flock of bold and brazen Mountain Chickadees are at the Crystal Hut. Normally the chickadee is very shy and will not fraternize with humans.
Beautiful Clark's Nutcrackers are also becoming bolder and less shy at several mountain food outlets, as well as the rest stop on the ski out from Blackcomb Glacier.
Elusive pine grosbeaks, usually found in upper mountain forests, have been recently out at valley bottom.
Ravens are out at all elevations every day, and the town centre has been blitzed by a large flock of Northwest crows that number between 50 and 150 on any given day.
Now that spring is here the first warm spell should see a return of the swans and geese, followed by several species of ducks and, of course, the robins.
At present the Kootenays are experiencing an eruption of Red crossbills, seen on many a roadway picking up fine gravel to aid their digestion. They have shown up here as well on the mountain, although they may be the White-winged species. Our ace alpine birder, Jim Wharin, promises to confirm the exact identity as soon as he spots them again.