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NatureSpeak Articles

Christmas bird counts: The regional aspects and local rivalries

Finally, the data from the multitude of bird counts is now rolling into the central computer command post, after a month of technical glitches with the system, located at the offices of Bird Studies Canada, Long Point on Lake Erie. There are over 2,000 bird count circles, each 24 kilometres in diameter, spread across the continent. Who would have guessed that B.C. has the fourth highest number of active count circles (74); exceeded only by California, Ontario and Texas! And if the number was based on a per capita ratio, our province would be by far the most active Christmas count jurisdiction in the entire continent.

What has promoted this surge of interest, other than the fact that there are more species of birds here than anywhere else in the country? The mild coastal climate is one additional inducement, but yet another is competitive rivalry. Take, for example, Calgary versus Edmonton; it’s a nip and tuck contest as to who tallies the most species – Calgary usually wins. In British Columbia it is Vancouver versus Victoria in the days of old, but new players are cramping their style considerably. Ladner has by far the largest volume of birds in Canada, around a quarter of a million, and is now becoming the usual top dog in the species count at 135-145. In 2001 Ladner hit 152 species, an exclusive 150-plus goal usually recorded only at several Texas, California and Central America localities. In fact, any count of over 100 species is noteworthy in Canada and by far the most are in B.C., which brings us to the matter of regional counts. There are several which are very noteworthy in this province.

By far, the busiest regional count area is the east coast of Vancouver Island, and adjacent Gulf Islands, with 13 count circles located between Victoria on the south and Port McNeil to the north. If the Canadian co-ordinator has his way, it will add Port Hardy in the near future. Counts of a hundred-plus species are typical at Victoria (as high as 152, historically), Duncan, Nanaimo, Nanoose, Parksville/Qualicum, Comox and, rarely, Campbell River. That is the consequence of a rich marine component that few other centres enjoy. Not surprisingly, this SE/NW coastal transect reveals a dropping species count to the north, especially at Sayward where the marine waterways are narrow.

Another great regional run of count circles is the Okanagan chain with nine to 10 count circles stretching from the U.S. border through to Salmon Arm on the Shuswap-Okanagan drainage divide. For years, Vernon was the top species counter in this hotly contested valley, but Oliver/Osoyoos, with a bevy of expert birders, and assisted by a couple of hot shots from Squamish, is now the recognized leader. These two centres, and sometimes Penticton, tally 100 plus birds. The Okanagan chain also includes Princeton on its stretched out Similkameen tributary, and as of this year a new intermediary count (Apex Mtn/Hedley) was added to provide a missing alpine habitat component, as well as to be a friendly winter resort rival to Whistler! Well, they out-did us in their first count day attempt, 54 to 49, as did Banff by a similar score for this year. It seems that extensive agricultural lands are conducive to high species counts as well, except at Pemberton.

Lurking in the background is the amazing Yellowhead Highway transect, stretching from McBride (near Jasper) all the way to Prince Rupert (and Kitimat) with widely separated count circles. Suffice to say it shows a pronounced westward increase of species numbers, but nowhere near 100, even at the port cities. There are eight count circles on that line, if we include Fort St. James; unfortunately, Hazelton dropped their count several years ago.

The tightest area for counts is the lower southwest mainland with seven jammed between the Strait of Georgia and Chilliwack and Harrison Hot Springs to the east. A count at Hope is needed to completely fill out this east-west trend. There are 115 to 145 species counted at the three circles that lie next to the marine waters, but usually less than 75 on the two east end counts. Interestingly, not only is there a hotly contested species count rivalry at the west end, but also Harrison pits its eagle count against Squamish’s.

Of much lesser magnitude to the north, the Sunshine Coast has three count circles with Powell River anchoring the north end. The count at Gibsons is notorious for picking up rare out-of-range species; one year it was the Xantus hummingbird, which normally resides at Baja, Mexico.

Inside the province there is a West Kootenay group of seven counts (including Revelstoke), four in the East Kootenays (with Creston), five in the Thompson-Nicola Basin (with Hat Creek, though frozen out in the cold snap of early January this year), four on the west side of Vancouver Island (beginning at Sooke with a 100-plus species count, but forest mill downsizing has eliminated the Tahsis count), six on the Queen Charlotte Islands, thanks to the hyper energy of Rev. Peter Hamel, but only two each in the Cariboo and Peace River districts. In fact, there are no counts north of latitude 56 o until Watson Lake, Yukon is reached at slightly more than 60 oN. For that matter, the Chilcotin is empty of counts, as is the recently de-populated Central Coast region of our province. Bella Bella especially would be a "trophy" bird count area.

Lastly, we finally have the Sea to Sky corridor transect, beginning at Horseshoe Bay/Bowen Island on the marine front and winding up at Lillooet on the eastern or leeward side of the Coast Mountains. It’s taken four years to get all the six counts rolling, with Horseshoe Bay/Bowen finally gearing up this year. Notwithstanding, wherever a count is held on the coastline, the island component of a count circle is always the last to shuffle their data into the local count headquarters! We are still awaiting their final tally.

So, next week, part two of Christmas Bird Counts will delve into the local highlights, absurdities and species trends across the Sea to Sky corridor. Indeed, each count has some unexpected highlights, and the sum total of the various parts of each does add up to an interesting inventory of species trends.

Upcoming Events:

Monthly Bird Walk: The next bird walk will take place Saturday, March 6 th. Join Whistler experts in the monthly update of our feathered locals and migrants.

Written by: Karl Ricker


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