Spring migration 2004 was certainly unlike last year and unusual, to say the least.
It began in early February, after the last major storm of the winter, when the air warmed up. The first Mallards arrived on Feb. 7 th , along with the Goldeneyes, Common and Barrow’s, and were followed by the Canada Geese on Feb. 15 th .
Other waterfowl soon followed and by early March there were record counts of Trumpeter Swans, peaking at 60 birds on some days at Green Lake.
And in March, the landfill became a haven to Bald eagles, over 40 on some days and peaking at 57 on a bumper day – another local record.
The eagles slowly pushed the gulls out, which are usually there in the hundreds, and on one day in April the facility was gull-free until late afternoon when two immatures dared to reappear under the scrutiny of numerous ravens and the 15 remaining eagles.
Spring, by all counts, was three to four weeks ahead of schedule, as born out by full green foliage on the bushes and trees for the monthly bird walk in early May. Traditionally the deciduous species are leaf-free for this count, making the arrival of song birds easy to see. But not this year.
The unusual spring changed the migration patterns of many species. On the waterfowl front the birds arrived in dribbles and continued on their way north after a warm few days of loafing on our lakes and wetlands. Few bothered to stop and raise new brooks locally.
In fact, by May, lakes and ponds were almost empty of visible waterfowl, as born out elsewhere nearby and on the ocean front. Our biggest counts: 60 each of Buffleheads, Coots and Widgeon on one or two days – a far cry less than the hundreds counted last year on two or three days.
By the end of the avian spring season a few of the rarer ducks did appear but in miniscule numbers. Not seen this year are several species of grebes, the Snowgoose, Wood duck, Long-tailed duck (Old Squaw), White-winged scoter, and Sora rail.
At season end a few broods of Mallards and Canada geese have emerged, while other normal nesters have yet to show their progeny. Moreover, male Mallards are already flocking up for their southward migration and leaving the females to look after their broods alone – the cads!
For the other groups of birds the migration is also slightly ahead of schedule. The shore birds, always few in number, began to arrive in mid-March and seven species had appeared by late May. The picture was the same with the gulls, other than the countless local large gulls, but terns have so far escaped detection if they did pass through.
Of the raptors, the osprey arrived at Easter to re-occupy their lofty nest site opposite the recreation centre. The records on their site go back to at least 1922.
The dominance of Bald eagles throughout the spring period may have deterred the presence of other species. The Red-tailed hawk has been seen rarely; the North Harrier swooping the vast wetlands only once; the Merlin is nesting at Emerald Estates; and the occipiter hawks (Sharp-shinned, Cooper’s and Goshawk) are yet to be seen.
The owls are equally shy although the Barred owl is again welcoming mountain bikers on A River Runs Through It, and last week I witnessed six angry Gray jays attacking a Great Horned Owl on "Foul Play".
In the songbirds, the move-in of flycatchers is decidedly weak; four species normally present are yet to be seen or heard. Swallows are all accounted for in normal numbers except for the Bank species and the swifts are only now appearing at Squamish. Among the thrushes, the robins have returned in expected numbers but the other members are decidedly few. But we did have a few Mountain blue birds.
American pipits arrived on our sandy lakeshore edges in April and by mid-May were back up above tree line, where they will remain for the summer.
Warblers, all of the usual species, began to arrive at the end of March (the Yellow-rumped) and by May all were accounted for, the numbers of Wilson’s, Yellow, and Common Yellowthroat being especially strong.
Vireos are here in their usual noisy presence but shyness and camouflaging gray-green bodies make them very difficult to see.
Equally impressive in numbers are Song and White-crowned sparrows, whereas the few Fox and Golden-crowned were here for a few days only in early April and have moved on. Recently a few residents have spotted colourful Western tanagers, and the juncos are now moving up-slope.
The blackbird clan is about normal, with one rare appearance of a Western meadowlark, but the Yellow-headed blackbird and Bullock’s oriole have not been seen.
And in the finish-grosbeak scene, all species normally present have been seen, although frequency and numbers have been few except for the Pine siskins. The latter were around all winter in big flocks and are now reducing to twos and threes in their up-slope migration to the tree line.
The Checklist of Whistler Birds, including the supplement published recently by Pique, lists 192 spring species that have been seen in the area over the years. Some are very rare and hence cannot be expected to be found each year.
This year 127 species have been seen without question and another nine suspected species required a corroborative solid sighting. Because of the early spring three summer arrivals were among the 127; Ruddy duck and Western and Least sandpipers. The former have now appeared each spring over the last three years, and hence its status will require a change.
Birds of the season, however, are the Western Kingbird at Green Lake, the Gray catbird at Alpha Lake, and the Pectoral sandpiper on Fairway number 12 at Nicklaus North Golf Course.
The lattermost have not been seen at Whistler in the last 10 to 15 years.
Pemberton Bird Walk at One-Mile Lake — The walk leaders are the five crack birders from the annual Breeding Bird Survey. Last year almost 50 species of birds (and lots of interesting flowers) were viewed in two hours! Meet at 8 a.m. Saturday, June 12th in the parking lot.
Nature Walks — Meet Botanist Kristina Swerhun at 6 p.m. Wednesday, June 16th at the entrance to the Catholic Church at the bottom of Lorimer Road and explore the Emerald Forest.
Monthly Bird Walk — The next bird walk will take place Saturday, July 3rd. Join Whistler experts in the monthly update of our feathered locals and migrants.
Written by: Karl Ricker