Spring Migration, 2006 - surprises and no-shows


An unusual migration season to say the least. Waterfowl passed through at a low level pace, lacking any sustained movement in high numbers for any species. Rafts of ducks did not build up on our lakes, the best being flocks of 20 or so Buffleheads, Mallards and Scaups on several days. Other waterfowl arrived and departed in irregular blips with only a few electing to hang around for the nesting season. But in the last week of an otherwise empty May, large V-shaped squadrons of 50-100 geese, flying high, were heading north, while a few of the earlier arrivals were hatching goslings on our lakes and ponds.


Why was there a migratory delay on Canada geese?


However, by season-end there were only a few no-shows on the waterfowl scene, though numbers on most species are down. The most glaring of the absentees are the five species of grebes, which featured such good southbound movement in the autumn of 2005. Where are they now?


For raptors the picture is equally light. Ospreys arrived on time, having to re-build their nest at Edgewater, however. For the first week indecision on where to re-build reigned, but they or the Mrs. settled on re-using the old tree to erect a magnificent, well-supported structure. Other species of raptors have been scant. A sole Harrier hawk and Kestrel scared off two flocks of Mountain bluebirds inspecting new birdhouses erected expressly for them at Nicklaus North. Tree swallows took over their residences.


Closure of the landfill reduced the Bald eagle and Red-tailed hawk sightings. Merlins seen more often are in nesting mode at Tapleys, and a Cooper’s hawk met a fatal demise in a fight with crows at Edgewater. A rare Rough-legged hawk was the highlight raptor for the season, seen over the town centre on several days in early spring.


Waders have been slow to return as well, with only one sighting to date of a heron, but we did snag our third ever record of an American bittern at the outlet of Alta Lake. Among the species of rails this year all American coots moved on through, but a pair of whining Soras can be heard at Shadow Lake. Of shorebirds, several Killdeer, Wilson’s snipe and Spotted sandpipers are here, hopefully to breed, while a very few other sandpiper species made brief stopovers. The closure of the landfill has decimated the gull population, with scarcely any present during our weekly checks. Glaucous-winged gulls have also been scant at some nearby coastal locales and will likely remain this way until the conclusion of nesting season. So, a few may come back to Whistler before winter. Missing on the fly-through to date are Mew, Ring-billed and Thayer’s gulls, as well as the closely-related terns.


The Barred owl is back to its old haunt on "The River Runs Through It", and Great horned owls still reside near Tamarisk. In April the flicker population (red-shafted form) was hectic and noisy and its very rare yellow-shafted form was seen by Heather Baines at Black Tusk Village. Pileated woodpeckers are also quite visible this year, but Hairys, Downys and Red-breasted sapsuckers have been scarce, and the Three-toed has gone two years without a sighting. The Pine beetle attack on forests to the north has siphoned off these species.


The last Saturday of May saw an aerial blitzkrieg of Swifts flying at Mach 2 over Alta Lake, while Mach 1 Swallows skimmed the lake surface. A weather front that concentrated the aerial bugs brought on the equivalent of the Battle of Britain. As well, several flycatcher species have arrived though not in prolific numbers. Olive-sided with the "Quick Three Beers" call have already moved up the mountainsides, along with the dippers, and the early spring abundance of juncos. Smaller epidonax flycatcher species are now being heard, but seldom seen on the valley floor. Behind schedule however are Cedar waxwings, kingbirds and alpine-loving Horned larks. Several flocks of American pipits have been on Green Lake’s deltas and they should also be in the alpine once insects appear on the snow pack.


Song birds of the marshes are numerous and even a rare Marsh wren and Yellow-headed blackbird have shown up to join the Yellow-throats (warblers) and Red-winged blackbirds. Other warblers have returned in usual numbers, including the abundance of brilliant Yellow warblers, mistakenly identified as canaries! Nope, the latter is a member of the finch family; but with the exception of the re-appearance of Pine siskins other members of the finches have been very scarce.


There are surprises this year. The Rock pigeon, so abundant in Vancouver, but not seen in over a decade at Whistler, and now listed as "extirpated" our list, has appeared at the transfer station during last week’s storm. As of June 1, it is roosting quite comfortably in the rafters, despite the noise of tractors below.


During late April John Mikes spotted a flock of 45 Sandhill cranes flying over Emerald, and there were several reports, valley wide, of a large flock of hundreds of Evening grosbeaks. The later is especially gratifying because the grosbeaks have been in population decline for several years.


Early in May on the monthly bird walk a warbler with a crimson head was spotted, and after much analysis it has proven to be Whistler’s first Palm warbler, now running our new checklist to 245 species. On this list there are 199 spring species, but this year’s array of new spring sightings have upped it to 207, though the total number seen this season is 137, netting a less than normal 66% sighting ratio. Yes, this spring’s migration has been a slow dribble, but perhaps some of the laggards will show up soon.


Written by: Karl Ricker


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