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NatureSpeak Articles

Migrating Grebes spectacular this time of year

The revised checklist of Whistler’s birds now lists 242 species, of which 188 have been seen in the autumn migration period (Sept. 1—Nov. 30). This year we have spotted 107, some in large flocks and others as one-time observation of a sole individual.

The "recovery" (56 per cent) is admittedly on the low side, but on the other hand about 20 other species of smaller birds jumped to an early departure in August, or even late July.

Waterfowl, on the other hand, were slow to arrive from points north, being over a month behind schedule in some cases, and it was not until late October that large rafts of ducks appeared on our lakes. As I write (mid-November) there are yet significant numbers of Ring-necked ducks, Buffleheads, and American coots floating about while large flocks of Dark-eyed Oregon juncos continue to feast on fireweed seeds at Nicklaus North.

Among the plethora of waterfowl, the numbers of grebes have been stronger this year. While Pied-billed grebes are at normal numbers, almost daily in one or twos, Red-necked and Horned have been seen almost weekly on our lakes. However, it is the return of the long-necked and elegant Western grebe which has been the big surprise, seen throughout October and early November on Green and Alta Lakes. This is the second year of their comeback, after years of decline. Historically, several tens of birds at any one time could be seen. The only missing grebe in the picture is the Eared, which has always been more than just a very rare visitor.

Other than the grebes the other significant sightings among the waterfowl have been a Yellow-billed loon on Alpha Lake and a Long-tailed duck on a pond at Nicklaus North. Not seen and always very rare visitors are Tundra swan, Greater white-fronted goose, Cackling goose and Red-breasted merganser.

Among our raptors, the nesting osprey at Edgewater departed in early September with at least one fully-fledged offspring. Sightings of all other species have been scant except for one Cooper’s hawk who took up residence at Taluswood to feast on their abundance of squirrels, and a Northern shrike at Nicklaus North.

The only owls were a pair of Great-horned at Tapley’s, a Northern sawhet which lost an argument with a window at Starbucks – probably chasing a House sparrow for fare – and a surprising Snowy owl at the Flute-Piccolo col. Game birds went into usual hiding but a threesome of Spruce grouse, which are always very hard to find, were on the trail between Singing Pass and Russet Lake.

Shorebirds were unusually scarce; dogs on the Fitzsimmons Creek delta-fan scare them off, and terns have been no shows for the entire year. As for gulls, some days at the landfill are filled with a thousand or more, and on other days the totals are less than 20. Mew and California gulls have been the unusual sightings. Actively at work in our marshes and ponds are a few Great blue herons and Belted kingfishers, competing with the three to four river otters which have been cavorting spectacularly at Nicklaus North, and a very bold moose at the Montebello wetlands!

Woodpecker sightings, except for the flicker, have been few; pine beetles to the north of Whistler are drawing them away, including the sapsuckers.

Robins had a very robust migration through the valley this year, and the Varied thrush have returned to the valley floor. Ruby-crowned kinglets were also numerous, but only the Golden-crowned remain and usually in mixed flocks with chickadees. Among the sparrows, White-crowned numbers have been strong whereas Golden-crowned are very light and Chipping sparrows not seen at all. All species of finches have been few to absent. Blackbirds and relatives are not so numerous as in the past, although a solitary, and very rare, Western meadowlark finally appeared a month and a half late at the end of October and is still at the ponds of Nicklaus North.

During the autumn two species were added to the Whistler list. There were several Rusty blackbirds at the landfill, mixed with the ever-present Brewer’s and seasonal Red-winged. The Rusty is an interior species, in severe decline according to the experts. Mind boggling, however, were a pair of Purple martins (swallows) hopelessly out of range on a tree top at Rainbow Park on the third Saturday of October. As coincidence always prevails, Purple martins were also seen the next day by Marcia Danielson on the Squamish Estuary count, and that location is still too far from their home.

Written by: Karl Ricker


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