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Songbirds low in annual counts


Rare sightings include falcons, snow geese

It’s been a strange year for local Christmas bird counts, and bird watchers will be watching results from around the province closely to determine if certain trends are regional or local in nature.

On every local count so far, the number of different species of songbirds was down significantly from historical averages.

In the Squamish Bird Count on Saturday, Dec. 14, volunteers counted just 56 different species, which is significantly down from the 74 counted the year before. They also counted just 740 bald eagles, which is down 400 from an average count.

"There’s lots of salmon carcasses here, but my guess is that they’re still up north feeding on the salmon runs up there," said Karl Ricker, a retired scientist and avid bird watcher who participates in local counts, and helps to organize the Whistler bird count.

With the eagles away, the sea gulls were a lot braver than usual. The volunteers counted more than 5,000 gulls on Dec 14.

Unique sightings included a Peregrine falcon and a Northern Shrike.

The rain was heavy for the count, which may have driven some birds into shelter.

The Pemberton-Mt. Currie bird count on Dec. 15 spotted 50 different species, one less than the last year. They also spotted 1,000 more birds.

Special finds included a sharpshinned hawk, snow geese, and a large number of golden eagles.

There were fewer waterfowl than expected, and Ricker believes they might still be enjoying warm weather and open water in the Interior and are late in migrating.

The D’Arcy-Birken count, which is in its first year, spotted 45 species, about 20 more than they expected. The birds of the day for volunteers were rare Band-Tailed Pigeons, a Pacific Loon, a Horned Grebe and a Townsend’s Solitaire.

"Locally you can’t see it as much, but during bird counts on the coast and Lower Mainland, the number of songbirds is way down," said Ricker.

"We’ll be watching the count in Ladner closely, and I’d like to get the results from Victoria and Nanaimo to see if it’s a regional trend. Why this would be we don’t know."

Local naturalist groups and bird watchers are part of a larger continental project organized by the National Audubon Society which conducts the bird counts every year.

By putting regional results together, birders can draw a bigger picture of where birds live and what the migrational trends are. Because some varieties of birds do travel a lot, it’s often difficult to tell if a species is at risk.

Birds are also the proverbial "canaries in the coal mine," and their disappearance can be a sign of a larger environmental problem. For example, scientist Rachel Carson discovered that the pesticide DDT was carcinogenic after people began to find dead eagles.

The bird counters in Whistler are also interested in knowing more about a dead Western Screech Owl which found its way to WAG, and then to the Whistler Museum and Archives. The species is extremely rare for the area, and the bird watchers are curious to find out where it came from.

The annual Whistler Christmas Bird Count is this Saturday, Dec. 21. More people are needed to help cover local zones, and no experience is necessary. All volunteers will be paired with experienced bird watchers.

For more information, contact organizer Karl Ricker at 604-938-1107, or Michael Thompson at 604-894-6402.

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