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Pine siskins save Christmas bird count

Storm keeps numbers low in Whistler



This year marks the 112th anniversary of the Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count, an event that draws in bird watchers, biologists and naturalists from across North America and around the world to collect data on bird species - what birds are where and in what quantities? Their combined work can identify species at risk, changing migration patterns that could be the result of climate or development. In some cases, conservation plans can save an entire species from extinction.

The counts run from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5, a time when most birds will have migrated. It's also easier to spot birds in the northern region when leaves fall off the trees.

Whistler's own count, the 20th annual, took place on Dec. 14 with 15 bird watchers scouring the mountains and the valley in search of species.

Despite the relatively mild start to winter, the Whistler count had the bad luck to be scheduled on a stormy day, which made it difficult to spot some birds and sent other birds for cover.

The count was saved by a high number of Pine siskins, with 4,556 counted this year - almost three quarters of the total count of 6,106. Red crossbills accounted for another 800 of the total.

"Both are irruptive species, which means some years they come in hordes and in some years they go somewhere else," explained Whistler Christmas Bird Count leader Karl Ricker.

Ricker is expecting the siskin count to be the highest of any Canadian count, although there are a still few weeks left before all of the counts will have wrapped up.

"Everything else was mediocre for birds," he said.

"There were no Clark's nutcrackers, despite some that were seen on Blackcomb earlier. We got a few Grey jays. A few domestic pigeons were also spotted - possibly escaped from a local breeder. Two Pileated woodpeckers were spotted, which was a record for the Whistler count. And both Whistler and Pemberton got a pygmy owl.

Counter and former mayor Ken Melamed also found a White-tailed ptarmigan, a rare bird that will be of international interest as Whistler is the only count local in North America that ever sees that species.

The total number of species found was 37 for Whistler, down from an average of 41. The number of birds was also above the average of roughly 2,500, and well above last year's almost record-low count of 1,550 birds - the result of unusually cold temperatures earlier in the month.

Ricker also participated in counts in Squamish, Pemberton and D'Arcy.

The Squamish count tallied 8,500 birds, slightly below average and 75 species, which is five above the annual average going back more than 30 years.

Of concern was the low count of 423 eagles, which is less than half of the average. Counts of the eagles have been low the past three years, said Ricker.

There were a few rare finds in Squamish as well, including a Dunlin shorebird, Western grebes, a few rare Spotted sandpipers and a Marbled murrelet spotted by a boat party on the western shore of Howe Sound - an endangered species on the provincial "Red List."

In Pemberton, the highlight was the eagle count near Spetch Creek, with 82 - one short of the record. They found a total of 53 species, which was average.

In D'Arcy, the count turned up 43 species and roughly 600 birds in total, with nothing unusual reported.

In addition to count day, the Audubon Society tracks other bird finds from count week, which includes feeder reports from birdwatchers. The data from the week is still being compiled.

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