Whistler’s Winter Birds
By: Karl Ricker
Date: March 17, 2004
For our feathered friends the winter season was finished at the end of February, using the new ornithological definition of the season. Before then the cold snaps of early and late January reduced the population of birds to be seen to a mere trickle, only a few species on any day.
After the conclusion of the heavy snowfalls in early February, some of the migrants appeared: Mallards, Ring-necked ducks, and Canada geese early in the month, and Trumpeter swans on Green Lake at month-end. Up high the Gray-crowned rosy finches showed up on cue at the Horstman Hut; this is an annual event, heralding sunshine with powder snow! Certainly some migrants were early this year, but among the song birds only the Red-winged blackbirds have noticeably increased in numbers.
Only 27 of Whistler’s usual 43 or so resident species were seen during the January period of inactivity. On a regular basis it was down to: Pine siskins in a few swarming flocks, Black-capped chickadees, Northwest crows, Common raven, Stellar’s jays, House sparrows and European starlings at the town centre, Glaucous-winged gulls at the dump, Buffleheads on the inlets or outlet of Green Lake and Gray jays on the ski slopes. The other 17 species were seen rarely. On bitter, windy days, however, some of the usuals were out of sight as well, and one day I saw two birds only while hiking the Valley Trail between Lorimer Road and Rainbow Park! Nonetheless, there were some unusual sightings during January, the oddest being a Great blue heron, seen a few times in the smallest open wet, unfrozen boggy areas on the valley floor.
The “bird-of-the-season” for this writer was the Northern shrike, seen at least once per week viciously hunting the Pine siskins. It is not a member of the raptor families. This bird, robin-sized, has a hooked bill to assist catching of prey. It usually sits on tree tops scanning for its next victim. Normally the shrike is seen once or twice in a year at Whistler, but this year it took up winter residence, probably because of the abundance of siskins. It has been seen at Alta Lake and along the Green Lake walkway, but likely patrols the entire valley floor. The few raptors seen over the winter were Bald and Golden eagles, Northern goshawk, Cooper’s hawk, and Merlin, the latter also preying on flocks of siskins.
The published Whistler Bird Checklist (1995) notes 75 resident and “vagrant” winter species; 61 of these were seen this season, but many were in the first three weeks of December only. Since 1995 there have been 19 additions to the winter list, mainly during Christmas Bird Counts, but some are sightings of very rare species in years gone by. Of the 19, six were seen this year, including the not-so-rare Kingfisher. Another species, Lincoln sparrow, was added on this year’s Christmas Bird Count. So of the 95 now on the list, 68 were seen this past season.
Rare sightings other than the shrike were Ruby-crowned kinglets, Slate-coloured form of the Oregon junco and Bohemian waxwings – all before Christmas. Not seen of the 27 absentees, but should have been around, are a couple of species of owl (Great horned and Northern saw-whet), Blue grouse, and a Three-toed woodpecker. The latter has not been spotted for over a year now; look for a yellowhead cap on what looks like a Downy or Hairy woodpecker; he or she is the Three-toed kind.