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Numbers up, species down at Christmas bird count



Small birds disappearing

While numbers were high for the 12th Annual Whistler Christmas Bird Count on Dec. 18, organized by the Whistler Naturalists Society, the number of species was down perceptibly.

The heavy snowfall made it harder to see some species, says bird count participant Karl Ricker, but a number of feeder watchers had noticed a decline in the number of small birds in recent weeks.

"Numbers of small birds were on the whole way below normal even before the Christmas count," says Ricker. "Snow was a factor, but it’s been going on for a while. We had a problem in November with very heavy rains for three days, between the 18 th and 20 th of November. At that time everyone who was watching feeders noticed the count of small birds went down significantly after that."

Ricker guesses that some of the birds moved out of the valley, while others may have died. If the declines were related to a predator, numbers would be down in a few areas, not across the entire valley.

Counts of Gray Jays, Stellar Jays, Nuthatches and Chickadees were down from normal, according to Ricker.

A group of 19 birders and five feeder watchers counted 4,520 birds on count day, which is the second highest count on record. However, "most of that is Red Polls, Pine Siskins and the gulls at the dump."

The number of ravens is also up, with 331 counted between the Callaghan and Soo valleys.

They counted 46 different species, down from 50 last year and 56 the year before. The count average is 39.4 since the beginning, but that average has been climbing in recent years.

The groups that traditionally count birds on the mountains were also out of luck due to low visibility and the fact that the alpine was closed, which also brought the specie count down.

Some of the rare species sighted include the first Sharpshinned Hawk ever spotted, the White-Breasted Nuthatch, a Redheaded Duck, a Blue Grouse, and a Snow Bunting. The Snow Bunting is an arctic bird that travels south during the winter, typically staying on the eastern side of the Coast Mountains and Rockies.

Ricker suspects that the Snow Bunting and White-Breasted Nuthatch were blown off course in recent weeks by storms. He can’t explain the Redheaded Duck, which has been spotted around the River of Golden Dreams and Green Lake during the past few weeks – "it’s very rare for these parts, and unheard of at this time of year."

The number of Red Polls and Pine Siskins was up, and they can be seen travelling together in huge clouds numbering hundreds of birds. "They move together in a swarm, turn together, land together on a tree and terrorize it, then take off again."

Among them was a Hoary Red Poll, a cousin of the Red Poll that is typically found further east.

This year the count was aided once again by Doug Brown, a semi-retired logger from Osoyoos. His goal this year was to participate in 17 Christmas bird counts.

"He finished a count in Port Townsend, Washington, the day before yesterday, caught the ferry, drove up to Whistler during that terrible storm, pulled over at the turnoff to Callaghan Lake at about 3:30 in the morning. Then he woke up at 8:30 and went to work."

Douglas has so far participated in counts in the North Cascades, Sunshine Coast, Vancouver, and Sechelt.

"We’re lucky to get him, he’s just an excellent birder."

This is the first year that Pemberton will be doing a count, and Ricker hopes that some of the species that were supposed to turn up in Whistler can be found a little further North.

In the Squamish Count, the number of species had also declined, from approximately 75 species to 67.

The final tabulations from the Christmas Bird Count, including count week, won’t be ready until January, says Ricker. Once they are complete, they will be sent to the National Audubon Society.

Every year, more than 50,000 people in North and South America take part in the count, gathering data that helps the Audubon Society track species and identify trends and environmental changes.