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Bird count takes off

Keep your eyes open and your fingers ready, ornithology fans — it's bird count time again. Local birders are stocking seed and prepping pencils in preparation for the 19th annual Christmas Bird Count. St. Albert's count runs all day this Dec. 27.
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Keep your eyes open and your fingers ready, ornithology fans — it's bird count time again.

Local birders are stocking seed and prepping pencils in preparation for the 19th annual Christmas Bird Count. St. Albert's count runs all day this Dec. 27.

It's one of 10 counts in the Edmonton region this winter, says count co-ordinator Alan Hingston, and one of hundreds nationwide. "It provides a snapshot of bird numbers on one day in the middle of winter," he says, which helps naturalists track population trends.

As usual, Hingston is looking for about 150 bush-beaters and feeder-watchers to patrol a 24-kilometre zone around the St. Albert Airport. Their results will go to the Audubon Society to compile a continental picture of bird life.

Tips from the vets

Beginning birders would do well to have Peter Demulder as their wingman — he's the one who founded St. Albert's count 19 years ago.

The most important factor when it comes to spotting birds in your backyard is trees, Demulder says. "You should have trees in your garden and be connected to a corridor where the birds can get to your yard." No trees means no birds, no matter how much seed you put out for them.

You'll get the best variety of birds with a mix of unsalted black sunflower seeds, shelled peanuts, and suet, he continues. "I also clear a patch under the tree so birds who don't like coming to the feeder [such as juncos] can scratch on the floor."

Feeder watchers are almost certain to spot black-capped chickadees and house sparrows during the count, Demulder says — the latter of which tend to be messy eaters. Watchers should record the biggest number of these birds they can spot at any one time to avoid double counting. Downy (small) and occasionally pileated (huge) woodpeckers might also drop by for suet.

Keep an eye out for bohemian waxwings too, he adds, which usually swarm the Edmonton region by the thousands each winter. "We haven't seen any waxwings flocking yet. We're hoping they'll be here by Christmas."

Bush-beaters will patrol the country, looking for crows, magpies and snowy owls. "Last year in the [white spruce forest] we had a boreal owl," he adds — a first for the count. Cold weather could discourage birds from taking wing, he says, which could make them tough to spot.

Counters should also watch for unusual birds in the three days before and after the count, Hingston says. Sightings should be reported to either himself or other members of the count's crack bird identification squad, possibly along with a photo.

Changing trends

Recent counts have found dramatic changes in distribution for many species, notes Jocelyn Hudon, curator of ornithology at the Royal Alberta Museum. "We're seeing more birds staying [over winter] than ever before, and these counts are very important to document how these trends are happening."

A study released last year by the Audubon Society found that about 68 per cent of North American birds had shifted their ranges north in the last 40 years, a shift it attributed to climate change.

Water birds are now overwintering hundreds of kilometres north of their traditional grounds, says Dick Cannings, who runs Canada's bird counts for Bird Studies Canada, as are cold-hating California wrens. Continual shifts might put the squeeze on land birds, he adds, as they're less mobile.

Local trends have been less clear, Hingston says. Last year saw all-time highs for downy woodpeckers, ravens, and house finches, and record lows for great horned owls, the latter of which he blamed on deforestation. Anecdotally, Demulder says he's noticed more robins and American crows since the start of the count.

Interested counters should call Hingston at 780-459-6389.


Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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