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Tallies in for Whistler, Brackendale bird counts

Although weather hampers both counts, rising bird numbers seen as encouraging sign

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The recent Whistler Christmas Bird Count and the Brackendale Eagle Count both saw bumps in their numbers after dismal tallies last year.

For years, the Whistler Naturalists (WN) have spearheaded a team of volunteers tasked with recording the total number of birds observed on a single day throughout a 24-kilometre area that stretches around the resort. Held on Dec. 14, the count was hindered by strong gusts of wind that made birdwatching a challenge, explained WN's Karl Ricker.

"The wind was fierce," he noted. "The wind started about three days before the count and it pushed everything out."

In all, volunteers in the field and stationed at bird feeders around the resort counted 1,182 birds from 43 different species. That's up from a paltry 747 birds seen last year, but still down from the historical average of 2,350, Ricker said.

There were also several bright spots from the day. Most notably, birdwatchers spotted a white ptarmigan on Whistler Mountain, a rare find, particularly in the winter months.

"We're about the only place in B.C. other than Smithers that records them," Ricker said. "They're an alpine bird, they're well camouflaged, they're white, and if there's a fresh snowfall, they actually hide underneath the snow to keep themselves warm. It's strictly potluck if you run into one."

Another surprise came in the form of a northern shrike, spotted on the Nicklaus North Golf Course, which Ricker once again chalked up to "potluck."

"They are very hard to find," he added. "They are birds the size of a robin but they are voracious predators."

Volunteers also tallied a record number of mallard ducks, 55, and, surprisingly, five feral pigeons, a bird that has started to appear in the village in recent years.

It's these kinds of trends that demonstrate the value of the long-running Christmas count, which is run in hundreds of communities every year across North America.

"It's trying to get a long-term track on what's happening to our bird populations," said Ricker.

Groups like the Squamish Environment Society, which organizes the Eagle Watch Program from November to January each year, are doing their part to add to the scientific record. The group has kept monthly birdwatching data dating back to at least 1991, and in September enlisted the help of Quest University professor Kimberly Dawe to analyze the massive trove of data.

"Nobody has ever done anything with the information," said board member Larry Murray. "What we hope to get out of it is a deep understanding of the interconnections that impact birds that are here in Squamish and the Sea to Sky corridor." Murray is hopeful an initial report will be completed within six months to a year.

Along with Whistler's Christmas Bird Count, the report will also factor in more than three decades of data collected through the Brackendale Eagle Count, which was held on Jan. 8 this year.

Following 2016's historic low — only 411 eagles were spotted — organizers were heartened by a slight rebound in the numbers. Covering an area spanning the Squamish River and Brackendale Eagles Provincial Park, volunteers observed 698 eagles. Well below the record high of 1994 when 3,769 eagles were spotted, volunteer coordinator Vanessa Isnardy still saw the total as a promising sign, especially after factoring in that weather prevented birdwatchers from hitting all of the count's usual routes.

"We do know that last year there were some challenges with there not being any salmon. We didn't have a very big return and we also had some big storms," Isnardy recalled. "(This year), because there's food, and salmon are a primary source for the eagles, a fish-centric bird, they're sticking around.

"It's definitely nice to see there are good numbers and the trend is reversing."

For more information on the Eagle Watch Program and all of the Squamish Environment Society's programs, visit www.squamishenvironment.ca.

For more information on the Whistler Naturalists reach Kristina Swerhun at kswerhun@hotmail.com.

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