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Birders celebrate 20 years of counting

Bird counts were a simple affair back in 1964, according to Peter Demulder. It was Demulder's first Christmas bird count, and he was roaming the University of Alberta in search of feathered friends.

Bird counts were a simple affair back in 1964, according to Peter Demulder.

It was Demulder's first Christmas bird count, and he was roaming the University of Alberta in search of feathered friends.

"There weren't any rules or regulations," he recalls, and you could patrol where you wanted for however long you wanted. "We just went for a walk."

He's still at it 46 years later. Demulder, 81, is one of many local birders prepping their scopes this week for St. Albert's 20th annual Christmas Bird Count, scheduled for Dec. 27.

The count is a great chance to meet friends, enjoy science and learn about birds, says count co-ordinator Alan Hingston. Sharp-eyed spotters might even spot a bird never before seen in the history of the count: the Eurasian collared dove.

"This is a species that's spread all the way from Florida since about the 1980s," he says, and a pair of them was spotted within city limits earlier this month.

20 years and counting

This year's count will involve about 150 people, Hingston says, and will be backed by $350 from the city's environmental initiatives grant fund. It will also feature plenty of veteran counters such as Demulder, who founded the count in 1991.

The count came out of the Big Lake Environment Support Society, Demulder says, which had just formed that year. There were a lot of birders in town, and many wanted to know more about trends in bird populations. "You can't really tell from one year to the next," he says, so he set up the Christmas count to keep annual records.

The first count was held on Dec. 29, Demulder says. "I had to do a lot of arm twisting," he recalls, but he ended up with about 99 volunteers. Count records show that they spotted some 4,028 birds from 40 species that day, including record numbers of white-winged crossbills and evening grosbeaks.

The actual rules to the count haven't changed much since then, Hingston says. Counters spend all day watching feeders and patrolling neighbourhoods in search of birds, using guides and expertise to identify them. All reports go to zone captains — many of whom have held their post for 20 years — with the final count sent to Bird Studies Canada.

Many species have vanished from the count over the years, Demulder notes. "We had ring-necked pheasants in those days," he says, but they haven't been seen since 1995. Evening grosbeaks, once relatively common in the count, were last spotted in 2004.

Recent years have also introduced new species such as the boreal owl, house finch and black-bearded sparrow. Hingston says he expects the Eurasian collared dove to show up in this year's count — watch for a pinkish-grey dove with a thin black collar and a black and white tail.

Birders are also waiting on old favourites like the snowy owl.

"Usually we pick them up just after Nov. 11," Demulder says, "but now we're [at] Dec. 8 and nobody's seen a snowy." We usually get a wave of bohemian waxwings at this time of year, too — it's been just a trickle so far.

Demulder stepped down as head of the count around 2002 when Bird Studies Canada switched to digital reports (he's not into computers, he explains). This will probably be his last count. "I don't have the stamina I used to have," he says, and it's not quite as fun as it used to be.

Demulder says he's gotten a lot of enjoyment out of the last two decades of counting, and is glad he had a chance to contribute to scientific research. "You never know if you'll find something new and exciting."

Call Hingston at 780-459-6389 for more on the count.

Bird counts

Local birders have planned Christmas bird counts in 10 communities around Edmonton this season, including St. Albert. Edmonton's count is Dec. 19.
The Edmonton Nature Club is also holding a free bird identification talk by Gerald Romanchuk called, "What the heck was that?" on Dec. 17. Visit for details.

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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