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Highs and lows of the 14th Christmas Bird Count at Whistler

Whistler’s 14th bird count was greeted with high winds aloft and moderately heavy snowfall to frustrate the crack-of-dawn start by 20 birders in nine field parties. The rearguard of nine bird feeder guardians were also holding their breath – no less than six bird feeders had been ransacked by a gymnastic young bear in the days leading up to the count!

But as the day progressed the snowfall declined and the birds began to appear, some in record numbers and others in token presence, if they appeared at all. By the end of the day a record 6,408 birds were tallied, but over one half were the "irruptive" Pine Siskins which were found in flocks from treeline to valley floor. It was a record for the Siskins (3,410), almost doubling our previous high in 1999.

For the other boreal birds that are on continent-wide monitor, it was also a good day: Purple Finches (53) counted by Ken Melamed and Sean Aldcroft on Blackcomb almost quadrupled our previous high (14) in 1997. Kingfishers (2) were double our long-term average. Twenty Northern Flickers was four times the long-term average, thanks to Valerie Saltzman’s array of feeders, but there were no White-crowned Sparrows, as usual. However, a Lincoln Sparrow, not seen on prior counts, managed to intrude the scene.

Almost every party had a good count or unusual sighting of some species, to bring the total seen to 49 – shy of our record of 58 tallied in 1999, but nine above our long-term average of 40. Here are some of the highlights:

The ladies counted a record 1,364 Glaucous-winged and 20 Thayer’s Gulls at the landfill. Fourteen trumpeter swans were sighted on Alta, Green and Shadow lakes, with one at the latter playing a game of chicken with a large river otter, who failed after several devious attempts. However, a record two Cooper’s hawks saw one grab and devour a gull on Alta Lake. There were also two Merlins, on Northern Goshawk and a record four Northern Pygmy Owls to round out the other significant raptor sightings.

Three of the owls were seen on Blackcomb while the fourth attacked John Mikes’ plate-glass window. Both survived.

The Bald Eagle count (2) was on-third of the long-term average, while the Red-tailed Hawk tally (2) was double the usual number.

The Northern Shrike was seen on the day after the count, and nocturnal owling at several locales failed to raise a single hoot.

The feeder watchers provided the bulk of the record count of 181 Black-capped Chickadees, and a few Mountain Chickadees were seen by two field parties. Chris Dale came through with a record sighting of six Bohemian Wax Wings at White Gold; many years they are not present, their usual range being east of the Rockies.

In the sparrow group, the feeders provided nearly all of the record counts of Spotted Towhees (11), Song Sparrows (19) and Slate-coloured Juncos (13), the lattermost also being an eastern form of the Dark-eyed species.

Despite the trepidation caused by the blustery weather and the deep snow to wade through all participants agreed that it was a better than average count, though each individual party’s data looked minuscule until it was combined to provide the surprising aggregate result. Certainly the mountain parties had a better-than-average day, made possible by persistence and some unusual luck. Who would expect to find a dipper near Glacier Lodge? And bumping into one flock of Pine Grosbeaks is almost unheard of in the sub-alpine habitat.

However, those darn, elusive White-tailed Ptarmigans slipped through our grasps again, thanks to the inclement camouflaging weather in the alpine and sub-alpine. Several were seen on both mountains on the day prior to the count. Next year will be another opportunity.

Finally, our thanks to Shirley Thompson who hosted the countdown party at day’s end. It was a gourmet’s delight.

Upcoming Events:

Monthly Bird Walk – Saturday, Feb. 7, 2004. 8 a.m. Meet at the bottom of Lorimer Road at the Catholic Church. Join Whistler experts in the monthly update of our feathered locals and migrants.

Written by: Karl Ricker


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