Participants in the annual Whistler Christmas Bird Count have seen some tough conditions over the past 19 years, but this year’s Christmas count on Monday, Dec. 15 ranks as one of the toughest, with freezing temperatures and high winds sending birds into hiding.
“The wind was furious, the temperature was furious, a lot of the alpine areas were closed because of the lack of snow, and unreachable even for the adventurous,” said count coordinator Karl Ricker.
A crew of 13 counters were out in the field during the day, from the Whistler Olympic Park to the north shores of Emerald Lake, and in the alpine on both mountains. As well, several residents sat by their home feeders and recorded visitors through the day.
The Christmas Count, which runs in parallel with counts organized through the Audubon Society for the past 109 years, is held at this time of year because most species have completed their migrations and its easy to see birds in northern areas when the leaves are off the trees. Tens of thousands of volunteers in more than 2,000 communities across North, Central and South America participate, giving the Audubon Society a big picture of the relative health of various bird populations.
The Whistler count recorded just 681 birds in total, down more than 400 per cent from the more average 2007 count of 2,659 species. It was the second-lowest tally in Whistler’s count history, after just 618 total birds were counted in 1991.
But while numbers were low, the counters found 44 different species in their travels, which is higher than the average of 40.7, and 11 higher than last year’s count, when there was more snow on the ground and in the trees.
The counters also logged two new species for the Whistler count, a Rough-legged hawk that had been spotted off of Alta Lake Road around Alpha Lake, and a Greater scaup. Another positive was the discovery of four Belted kingfishers, when the average for the past 18 years is about 0.8.
The alpine counts were particularly tough, with a handful of birds on each mountain. Ricker was particularly mystified by the lack of birds spotted at Whistler Olympic Park — one raven — when the area was most protected by the winds.
“Of all the areas in the account we expected that we would turn up a lot at the Nordic venue, but we looked everywhere and there were no birds to be found on a beautiful, sunny day,” he said. The usual flocks of Pine siskins that can usually be seen picking gravel off the road to help with their digestion were also missing, despite a fresh covering of gravel on the road to the Olympic Park. “That was the most frustrating thing,” said Ricker.
A few other species were counted in above average numbers, but the majority were well-down, including Steller’s jays, Bald eagles, Ring-necked ducks, hybrid gulls and Thayer’s gulls (at the new waste transfer station), Gray jays, Nothern flickers, Black-capped and Chesnut-backed chickadees, and, by a large measure, House sparrows — just 13 spotted, compared to an average of 30.
Seven more species were added during the count week, but overall Ricker says it was a disappointing year. He knows that some species of backyard birds were likely taking shelter from the wind and cold, and expects that the alpine count would have been higher if the counters had more access to the terrain.
The results from the bird count will be sent to the Audubon society, as well as results from counts in Squamish, Pemberton, Birken, Lillooet, the Sunshine Coast, Gulf Islands, and Nanaimo, where Ricker is heading this week to lead the count his father started back in 1931.