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NatureSpeak Articles

Christmas bird counts in the Sea to Sky

It has taken a few weeks; the results for this year’s Christmas counts are finally on file (

For the corridor a new count was added to reflect the "sky", at the east end: Ashcroft/Cache Creek, near the end of Highway 99 – welcome.

Number of species and number of birds counted for the seven centres are as follows: Lower Howe Sound (76 sp/9,039 birds), Squamish (62 sp/10,930), Whistler (46 sp/1,445), Pemberton-Mt. Currie (55 sp/2,046), D’arcy-Birken (48 sp/761), Lillooet (53 sp/1,362) and Ashcroft-Cache Creek (38 sp/1,251). Including birds seen in the window of three days before and after, as well as on count day, 122 species were tallied, the same as last year, totalling 26,833 individuals.

How does it stack up against a typical coastal count at only one centre? Well, Sechelt registered a high of 122 species; Nanaimo had a down day at 120, while Nanoose Bay had a record 114 species.

Compared to last year the result is mixed. Lower Howe Sound and Squamish were down 10 species each, whereas the other counts were up by three to six species. Total birds counted, however, were higher for Lower Howe Sound and D’Arcy-Birken, and lower for Squamish, Whistler and Lillooet, while Pemberton recorded no significant change in volume. Whistler’s 50 percent nosedive from a 16-year average of 2,790 birds is attributable to two factors: (1) closure of the landfill to reduce the gull counts from a long term average of 720 to 170, and (2) disappearance of the usual large flocks of Pine siskins – throughout B.C. as it turns out. Why? The Canadian coordinator of all counts, Dick Cannings, is still scratching his head for an answer.

Ubiquitous species to all counts for this year were the following: Mallards, Common goldeneyes and Hooded mergansers among the 22 species of enumerated waterfowl; Bald eagles in the 10 species of raptors noted; Northern flickers (all but one red-shafted) among the five species of woodpeckers; Black-capped chickadees in the four species of tits; Red-breasteds in the three species of nuthatches; American dippers with a Squamish high count of 60; "Old World" European starlings and House sparrows, of course; and Spotted towhee, Song sparrow and Dark-eyed Oregon junco in the six species tallied for the sparrow group.

Last year we had several more "universals" (Common merganser, Belted kingfisher, Downy woodpecker, Steller’s jay and Pine siskins), but Whistler and Ashcroft-Cache Creek played the role of spoiler for one or the other.

Individualism reigned this year. Lower Howe Sound with its marine habitat and warmer climate polled the only Barred owl, Anna’s hummingbirds, as well as 16 marine species (sea ducks, shorebirds and alcids) and four songbird species not seen elsewhere. Squamish had a few highlights (Northern pintail and Long-tailed ducks, and Common redpoll), as well as an osprey which should have been in Central America. Pemberton registered an outstanding Virginia rail, the only Northern goshawk, but balked at filing a "Rare Bird" report on their Boreal chickadees — so, they aren’t officially in the record book! D’arcy-Birken had the only coot (usually seen on Whistler’s count) and Blue grouse, along with a high count (15) of Ruffed grouse. Lillooet coughed up the expected Morning dove and the unexpected Marsh wren, while together with Ashcroft-Cache Creek they tallied the dry belt species of Chukar, Black-billed magpie, Pygmy nuthatch, Townsend’s solitaire and Cassin’s finch.

Whistler’s unique contributions were our alpine birds: White-tailed ptarmigan, Pine grosbeak, and our first and long-overdue Gray-crowned Rosy finch, and for good measure, a Western gull from the landfill.

Owls were definitely hard to find this year, with low counts on the Northern pygmy and token sightings of Barred and Great horned — Whistler this year being a complete shut out. The bird of the season was Heather Baines’ prolonged and careful observation of an out-of-place Common murre, a marine alcid at D’arcy no less, with aberrant colour patterns to confound its identification. As far as we can determine this is the only second record of a murre on a fresh water lake inside B.C. in 125 years or more of records. The first was on February 7, 1933 by Dr. W.E. Ricker (my father) at Cultus Lake.

Another oddity was as "Old World" Mute swan in the Lower Howe Sound count; normally they are in urban parks and adjacent waterways where they were released decades ago. Finally, the very low numbers of all finch species is evident — especially the grosbeaks and crossbill members, though happily Whistler did find a few Evening grosbeaks and Red crossbills. Such unexpected revelations are what make Christmas Bird Counts so intriguing. Come and join us next year.

Written by: Karl Ricker


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