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Whistler’s winter birds: Residents, lagging migrants and opportunistic or accidental vagrants!

Now that winter has finished, the writer has reviewed his notes of bird observations. With the exception of early February, the following "transects" were checked for birds three to four times per week: Valley trail from Lorimer Road to Rainbow Park (usually in a.m. hours); Green Lake walkway from Highway 99 to Joël’s (usually in the early afternoons); Nita-Alpha Lake walkways (always early a.m.); outlet of Green Lake (late afternoons); my own feeder in Alta Vista (whenever); upper mountain slopes (during lift operating hours); town centre (1 to 2 times per week); and the community landfill and sewage plant (once per week). While the lakes were frozen throughout this period, the River of Golden Dreams, Jordan Creek and Green River were not, although slow reaches of the former at the Fisherman’s Loop froze occasionally. The observations covered most of the habitats indicated on the "Checklist of Whistler Birds" (published, 1996 by the industrious Max Götz).

The checklist indicates the winter presence of 75 species at Whistler, based on long-term records collected up to 1995 or 1996. Since then, however, Christmas bird counts (at the start of winter) and other random observations have turned up at least another 17 species, bringing the total to 92. How many of these 92 species actually hang around throughout the entire winter, as opposed to those that are migrating south at a leisurely pace, or for that matter have jumped the gun on a northward return from their southern habitat? There are also the vagrants, the opportunistic visitors that fly in from Pemberton or Squamish when the mood hits them.

My own records for this past winter indicated 35 all-winter resident species, but admittedly another half dozen or so should have been around but escaped my eye. Those found regularly were: Trumpeter Swan (2), Hooded Merganser (the females!), Bald Eagle (adult and immature), Glaucous-winged Gull (and the hybrid to the Western Gull), Great Horned Owl (at the B.C. Hydro powerlines above Nita Lake), Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers, Three-toed and Pileated Woodpeckers, Red-shafted Flicker, Gray and Steller’s Jays, Clark’s Nutcracker, Northwest Crow, Common Raven, Black-capped and Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper (very tough to find!), Winter Wren, American Dipper, Golden-crowned Kinglet (few), Varied Thrush (few), European Starling, Spotted Towhee, Song Sparrow, Dark-eyed Oregon Junco, Red-winged and Brewer’s Blackbirds, Pine Grosbeak, House Finch, White-winged Crossbill, Common Redpoll (and Hoary variety), Pine Siskin, and the ubiquitous House Sparrow in the town centre.

What was missed and are sure to be full-fledged winter residents? The prime suspect is the White-tailed Ptarmigan at timberline or higher (which is cleverly camouflaged in its white plumage). Blue Grouse, Mountain Chickadee, Grey-crowned Rosy and Purple Finches, and Red Crossbills should have also been around, as well as the Northern Pygmy Owl, but I missed contact with any throughout the winter. Did any reader see them, or for that matter any others not listed above on a regular basis? If so, give Karl or Mike Thompson a call; we need the records.

And of the lingering migrants, who dithered on their departure? Our Christmas bird count of 61 species, compared to 35 (+ 7) listed as regulars, showed that the following were notable laggards: Pied-billed Grebe, American Wigeon, Mallards, Lesser Scaup, American Coot, Belted Kingfisher, and Robins. Others seen on the Christmas bird count are accidental strays from elsewhere, for example, the White-breasted Nuthatch and Redhead Duck, or opportunistic irregular visitors which live nearby. In the latter category there are various hawk and falcon species, as well as the Golden Eagle, the American Crows in Pemberton, and certainly the rarer Herring, Thayer’s and Western Gulls, the Common Merganser and the Bufflehead Ducks. The lattermost were seen irregularly at the outlet of Green Lake.

Which migrants jumped the gun on their return northward? This year it was the Canadian Geese, a flock of 25, which showed up in early March, followed by a few robins that appeared a week before the official end of winter, during our cold snap! As we write, spring migration is now in full force and the bird walks with Mike Thompson will blossom with returnees.

Not mentioned above is the impact of urbanization on our winter bird lists. Without Whistler there would not likely be any starlings, gulls, House Sparrows and perhaps Brewer’s Blackbirds. The latter two are seen exclusively in the town centre, whereas the others are most frequent at the dump. The presence of Bald Eagles would certainly also be curtailed because gulls are their prime dinner fare in Whistler Valley. Bobcats also prey on the gulls, although one snatched a Mallard in the River of the Golden Dreams in early January. Has mankind driven any winter species out of the valley? I don’t know, but Blue and Ruffed Grouse have been in very low numbers over the last few years.

Upcoming Events:

Saturday, April 20th — Pitch-In Day . Join the Whistler Naturalists in Alta Vista to help with roadside litter pick-up. There will also be a post-event BBQ at the fire hall and a Whistler Naturalists display at the Earth Day fair in Town Plaza that afternoon. For details, please contact Irene Stupka.

Thursday, April 25th — A time when glaciers ruled -- the Ice Ages in British Columbia , Join the Whistler Naturalists at MY Place (4335 Blackcomb Way) at 7:30 p.m. for the Whistler Naturalist Speaker Series. Jack Clague will be speaking about glaciation in B.C., with a focus on local glaciers. Admission by donation; youth and children free. Call Bob Brett for details.

Written by: Karl Ricker


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