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NatureSpeak Articles

Whistler’s waterfowl enjoy a warm winter season

February 28 th was the last day of winter for our fine feathered friends, so heralded by frisky juncos and the eruption of melody from the Song sparrows in the last week of the month. The heavy snowfall of February 26 th provided only a temporary damper on the changing scene. As far as the waterfowl are concerned, spring arrived after our early December cold snap; since then 16 species hung around or were seen passing through, northward bound.

And the writer has a confession to make. In my column on autumn migration, which was published before Christmas, I suggested that we would be without our usual group of Trumpeter swans for this winter. The day after submitting the column I winced; next day, the swans arrived on Green Lake and three have stayed thereon throughout winter, joined by a fourth near season’s end.

Over the course of the winter 67 species were tallied, of the 116 possible, as shown on the new checklist. But the list is already out of date. Five Ross’ geese were seen during Christmas season, for a new addition, and to ensure that our list is out of date we managed to add new winter records of the very rare Glaucous gull (a close relative of our hundreds of Glaucous-winged), and an unbelievably early migrant return of a Rufous hummingbird – easily six weeks ahead of schedule! On the other hand, 49 other species on the winter checklist were not seen, yielding a too low 59 per cent success rate despite the unusual duck presence.

Among the waterfowl, the story of the winter was the presence of dabbling ducks (Mallard, Widgeon, Green-winged teal, Gadwall, Pintail) and the Canada geese. All require neck-deep or shallower water to search for food, as opposed to the divers which can go to great depths for nourishment. Open shallow water in parts of all lakes, as well as in the slow-moving River of Golden Dreams, allowed the presence of the dabblers. The usual wintering diving ducks are Bufflehead, Hooded mergansers and Common goldeneye, as well as the non-diving Trumpeter swans. This winter, however, other diving species were late to depart or hung around: Ring-necked ducks, Greater and Lesser scaup, Barrow’s goldeneye and Common mergansers. And Great Blue heron did not leave us until mid-December. Notable absentees, however, were several species of grebes.

Birds of prey were not numerous; Bald eagles being the most frequently seen, and once in a while a Red-tailed hawk at the landfill. Northern goshawks eluded observation and the only owl reports came from Lost Lake, where an unidentified aggressive bird was attacking young loppeteers! Upland gamebirds are hard to find in winter, though a few Blue and Ruffed grouse were seen and camouflaged White-tailed ptarmigan surprised the skiers on Whistler Mountain. Woodpeckers were dominated by an almost daily appearance of Northern flickers while Harry, Downy and Pileateds had the usual weekly sighting, though more frequent at some feeders.

Red-breasted sapsuckers stayed at Black Tusk village and, again, there were no reports of Three-toed woodpeckers. Stellers’ jays were abundant throughout the valley bottom, while Gray jays feasted in good numbers at our mountain restaurants – Chick Pea and Crystal Hut being the most popular. Clark’s nutcrackers were few at any mountain eatery and Gray-crowned Rosy finches were at the exclusive domain of the Horstman Hut.

Other mountain species were hard to come by. Only one flock of Purple finches was recorded; Pine grosbeaks and Red crossbills made erratic appearances, and Pine siskins finally came back in small flocks in February. Red-winged blackbirds left us in early December but were back, noisily, by mid-January to the feeders along the Green Lake Walkway.

Other spring migrants, however, did not take advantage of the warm weather; Robins are still at Squamish and migrant sparrows, warblers and shorebirds are farther away in the Georgia Basin. It won’t be long before they will appear, and the time to put away the bird feeders is now upon us.

Some other unusual reports for the winter were Trudy and Peter Alder’s witnessing of two wolves chasing a deer onto the weak ice cover of Green Lake. The wolves stopped at shore edge. A belated report of a Barn owl on the west side of Alta Lake (October, 2004) by Jan Burgess is very unusual, because the old barns of the lower Fraser Valley are the nearest year-round habitat. The owl also adds another species to our checklist, bringing the total to 244 species. Checklists are produced to be out-dated upon release from the print shop!

Upcoming Events:

Bird Walks — The next upcoming Bird Walk is on April 1st with a new start time of 7 a.m.  Meet at the base of Lorimer Road.

Next Upcoming Whistler Naturalists Speaker Series — Life on the Edge: British Columbia’s Mountain Goats by Dr. Steve Wilson on April 27 th. Look for more information in the upcoming events.

Written by: Karl Ricker


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