2015 Christmas Bird Count – a record count again.

There’s always some excited anticipation ahead of a day’s birding, and for the Vancouver Christmas Bird Count (CBC) in Area G in Burnaby, it comes in two types: what birds will we find, and what will the weather be like? The latter, I guess, is more trepidation than anticipation. We’ve had some brutal days of rain and snow over the years on this count. It can make counting birds an endurance test rather than a pleasant day birding.

The weather forecast in the week preceding the count was consistently bad: Sunday, December 20, would see a front sweep in from the Pacific and give us a good soaking all day long. Yuck! A regular day’s birding can be postponed, but not a CBC. It’s the designated day and out we go, storm or sun.

And out we went, and wouldn’t you know it, the sun shone! The Jet Stream had slipped direction overnight, the storm roared though while we slept, and the morning dawned to scattered clouds, blue sky, and sun. Augury for a good day, perhaps.

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Sunrise mouth of Eagle Creek, Burnaby Lake

Note: you may view larger images of all pictures with single click on each.

Not only do the forests and fields look better and brighter in the sun, the birds are much more active, show themselves more readily, and are more vocal. Identifying birds by their calls is particularly important on a Christmas Bird Count. Because there’s not time to get a visual on each one, calls count: One towhee, another Song Sparrow, a Pacific Wren… and on we go, listening and tallying as we walk.

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Spotted Towhee in the sunshine

With teams at Burnaby Lake and Deer Lake, we were set for a good count. Good weather and skilled counters make a difference. Not only was the weather change a surprise, but the Burnaby Lake group was in for another just as we started counting. Stepping up to the bank of Eagle Creek to begin tallying the ducks, a bobcat burst out from under the creekside salmonberry canes, almost right under our feet, and bound across the base of the spit giving everyone a close, but fairly fleeting look in the daybreak gloom – too fast for any of us to capture a picture. Was it sleeping there, or waiting for duck breakfast? Possibly both.

Burnaby Lake team at Phillips Point, Burnaby Lake

Burnaby Lake team at Phillips Point, Burnaby Lake

I know; it’s a Christmas Bird Count. So what’s with the mammals? Well, a day’s birding is always enlivened by other wildlife seen, and the bobcat wasn’t our only bonus wildlife sighting. As we birded Phillips Point on the north side of the lake, we watched a family of river otters fishing just a short distance off-shore.

River Otter photographed while birding at Iona Island, Richmond

River Otter photographed while birding at Iona Island, Richmond

Burnaby Lake and Deer Lake parks are in area ‘G’ of the Vancouver CBC. Although area ‘G’ covers a lot of territory, we focus most of our counting efforts on the two parks, but also spend time along other sections of the Still Creek corridor. At the end of the day, we count the crow roost along Still Creek. This year we tallied 7000 Northwestern Crows, but it was a difficult count this year because the crows entered from multiple directions. Our count involved a lot of estimation, and therefore was conservative.

So how did we do? As the headline suggests, we set a new species record for the count. Seventy-two species, beating last year’s total of 69. We also had high counts of a large number of species for the count. We recorded three new species since I started keeping detailed records for the count in 2001: Redhead, Lincoln’s Sparrow, and Pine Grosbeak.

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West end of Deer Lake where the Redhead was first found

Redhead, a species of diving duck, is a rare bird for Deer Lake at any time of year. Seeing one on the CBC makes it an added bonus. If you’d like to see it for yourself, the bird seems to have taken up residence on the lake. I went down today to get a few photos and it was easily observed from the boardwalk along the north shore of the lake toward the west end.

Redhead, Deer Lake

Redhead with Ring-necked Duck behind, Gadwall female in front

Lincoln’s Sparrow is a dapper little sparrow that overwinters in the Lower Mainland in small numbers. This bird is not new to the count. We’ve recorded them in the 1990’s, but it makes the highlight list because it’s not been recorded since 2001.

Based on my detailed records and memory, Pine Grosbeaks have not been recorded previously in area ‘G’ , but have been seen for the past two years on Burnaby Mountain. In fact, there are around 20 birds up there now near Horizon’s Restaurant, and easily observed. We saw five of them near Sperling and Glencarin feeding on Pacific crabapples, a favourite food for many wintering birds such as finches.

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Pine Grosbeak photographed on Burnaby Mountain last year

Among the many high counts we recorded, I would highlight American Coots (207), which may have finally re-established their large wintering flock on Burnaby Lake following the completion of the lake dredging in 2011 that seemed to disturb their traditional wintering location.

American Coot flock, Burnaby Lake

Part of the large American Coot flock at Burnaby Lake

American Coot flock, Burnaby Lake #2

Closer view of American Coots with two Gadwall at Burnaby Lake.

Perhaps benefiting from the deeper water produced by the dredging, there now seems to be a good sized winter flock of Common Mergansers (66) on the lake.

COMEfishing

Common Mergansers actively fishing on Burnaby Lake

A bird that continues a long-term upward trend is the Cackling Goose (261), a smaller relative of the Canada Goose that at one time was considered just smaller type of Canada Goose, but is now recognised as a species in its own right.

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Cackling Geese photographed at Deer Lake in November

The high counts of gulls, Glaucous-winged (181) and Ring-billed (76), I think are related to the transfer station on Still Creek Avenue where our curbside collected food waste is handled. Most of these birds were counted on the beach at the east end of Deer Lake. Watch the gulls over the course of the day, and you will see a continual stream heading to and from the lake where they fly in to rest up, bathe and preen. They then head out again to the north west, in the direction of the transfer station where there is always a substantial gull flock. The gulls don’t feed on the lake; they feed at the transfer station.

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Winter plumaged adult Ring-billed Gull

Another high count was Green-winged Teal (340), which find the muddy mouths of Still and Eagle creeks where they flow into Burnaby Lake, particularly good habitat.

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Green-winged Teal preening

Here’s a link to see the full count from the day. Green indicates new to the count this year, high counts are in red.

So why did we break the record two years in succession? A combination of factors led to this fantastic result. We had good weather both years; we had a group of skilled counters in the field, and there were birds somewhat out of their usual ranges – further south or north, or up in the mountains. Good food supplies locally and poorer ones further north and in the mountains (heavy snowfalls), contributed to birds moving here, and staying.

Examples of somewhat out of range birds are Cedar Waxwings, usually found further south but finding a good Pacific crab apple crop locally. Common Redpolls from the north may not have the normal cone crops on which they depend, and Pine Grosbeaks may have been driven down from higher elevations for the easier pickings at lower elevations.

Birds like the Redhead are just serendipitous outliers from the Interior where they are quite common in winter. Such is the fun of Christmas Bird Counts.

Redhead, Deer Lake

Adult male Redhead, Deer Lake

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2012 Christmas Bird Count Ties Record

Some people insist that prayers to the weather gods are an essential part of pre-count rituals for the annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC). Let’s face it, West Coast weather in December is often seriously discouraging for spending a day outdoors counting birds. Eight hours in cold rain, and/or snow can get even the keenest birder asking: ” Now why exactly did I volunteer to do this?”

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Members of the Deer Lake CBC team at Deer Lake

Fortunately, however, for the eleven hardy birders who headed out to census our wintering birds on this Sunday’s (Dec 16) CBC, the weather gods, if not exactly benevolent, did at least leave us with a dry, but sunless day. Good birders in the field, a dry day, and a little bit of luck can mean a good count. And we had all three on Sunday.

STJA

Even before it was fully light at 8:00 a.m., noisy Steller’s Jays (above) were one of the day’s first additions to field notebook. Birds that announce their presence make for quick and easy birding – many of the birds on the census are identified and counted “by ear” through their calls and other vocalizations .

Although a number of vocal landbirds were identified early at the shores of Burnaby and Deer Lakes, where the two teams each began their days’ birding, the first order of business was to count the waterbirds.

With two unfrozen lakes on which to count ducks and other aquatic birds, we usually do quite well in this aspect of our CBC bird list. Our most numerous duck species (223) were, not surprisingly, Mallards.

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Mallard pair

A far less common duck (19 counted), and until 2005 one that we didn’t see on the count at all, is the very nattily plumaged Ring-necked Duck. The local increase in winter numbers of this duck is a reflection of a general continent-wide increase in this species.

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RNDUsingle

Other waterbirds we recorded on Sunday included the somewhat ancient-looking, fish-eating Double-crested Cormorant (15). Many consider this one of our less attractive birds, and although superficially drab, their turquoise eyes are a surprise feature that is only seen when the light is just right. These two are brownish immatures; the adults are glossy black. Remember to click on the images for a closer look.

DCCO's

And we don’t necessarily have to look on the water for all waterbirds. Many spend as much time on land as in the water. Great Blue Herons (4) not only wade the lakeshores, but also hunt in the long grass meadows at Deer Lake. The one below is demonstrating its hunting techniques – likely looking for the voles that inhabit the meadows at the western end of Deer Lake Park. We counted this one near the outflow of Beaver Creek into the west end of the lake.

GBHECBC

Talking of waterbirds on land, our biggest numbers of gulls on the count are usually found at the east end of Deer Lake, where they hang around in the playground area waiting for handouts. This year was no exception, but while numbers were reasonable, the species count was modest; just two, plus a few hybrids.

Ring-billed Gulls (30) are the daintier of the two species, and this one is showing its diagnostic yellow legs, yellow iris, black wing tips, and the banded bill that gives it its name.

RBGU

The dirty-looking head feathers on this bird are found on most adult gulls in winter. Over the course of the season, the brownish feather tips wear off leaving the heads bright, clean, and white ready for the spring and for the breeding season.

The other gull we counted on Sunday is the Glaucous-winged (46), our commonest species locally. It too has the “dirty” head effect, but is a much bulkier, heavier-billed bird than the Ring-billed. Compare the picture of the two birds to see the differences between the two.

GWGU

For the Glaucous-winged, note the large yellow bill with the red spot on the lower mandible, pink legs, dark iris, and grey wingtips the same colour as the back (mantle) feathers. Also, in the picture above note the size difference compared to the smaller Ring-billed behind.

Gulls can be very challenging to correctly identify, but separating the Cackling Goose from the very familiar Canada Goose can at times be even more of a challenge. In fact, up until 2004 the Cackler was considered just a small type of Canada Goose. However, it is smaller, darker coloured, breeds further north and west in the Arctic and sub-Arctic than the Canada Goose, and has a high yelping voice that is clearly different from the Canada Goose’s honking.

These characteristics, along with genetic studies, confirmed it as a different species. Look for the short neck and small bill as field marks. If you scratch your head over whether you’re looking at a Canada or a Cackling, don’t despair. It’s a subtle identification.  Below is part of the flock of 130 cacklers we counted on the rugby fields at Burnaby Lake.

Cacklers

A real surprise for us, and a first for the count this year, was that Cackling Goose numbers were higher than Canada Goose numbers. The Canada’s must have been feeding elsewhere on Sunday.

OK, so how did we tie last year’s record of 64 species? We saw lots of birds at Deer Lake, but the Burnaby Lake team really made some standout finds, and pushed our respectable totals into higher territory. In both parks we did well with the Dickie birds (birder talk for small, bush-dwelling birds) such as Song Sparrows, and other species of smaller birds such as Varied Thrushes.

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Song Sparrow – a classic Dickie bird, in a red-osier dogwood

VATH

And here a beautiful, robin-like, female Varied Thrush. Not really a Dickie bird, but my favourite winter thrush. (Picture taken in November)

However, at Burnaby Lake the team found 12 White-winged Crossbills, and a Townsend’s Warbler. Both birds are firsts for the Burnaby count, and the crossbills are the third record only for the whole Vancouver CBC, of which this count is a part – Area ‘G’. Considering that the Vancouver count has been running since the 1960’s, you can appreciate how rare an occurrence White-winged Crossbills are on a CBC. Unfortunately, I don’t have pictures to show, but see the links at the end of this post.

The crossbills are part of an invasion of winter finches that is taking place across the continent this year. We counted record numbers of Common Redpolls (40), Red Crossbills (78), and an amazing 724 Pine Siskins, which is more than three times our previous high since the year 2000. You may have noticed the swirling flocks of small, twittering finches, mostly staying high in the treetops when you’re out walking this year. You’re almost certainly seeing Pine Siskins. Here’s a very unsatisfactory picture of part of a flock of more than fifty birds.

PISIFlock

Very rarely wintering this far north, most Townsend’s Warblers head further south, many into Central America. As an insect-eating species, this individual, a spectacularly yellow male,  has landed itself a tough winter trying to survive in Burnaby. However, they are amazingly tough birds, and it will likely survive if the winter is not too severe, gleaning hibernating insects from the conifers it likes to hang-out in.

Northern finches heading south, southern warblers staying north, lakes unfrozen for the waterbirds, no rain or snow, and fields and bushes full of our resident and wintering birds, all these factors combined to give us a great result in this year’s Christmas Bird Count in Burnaby and Deer Lakes – a great seasonal gift.

Oh yes, and the crow roost this year along the Still Creek corridor – about 8000 birds.

Season’s Greetings everyone.

Click here for pictures of Townsend’s Warbler

Here for White-winged Crossbills

And here for the Area ‘G’ Results 2012 species and numbers.

Pictures in the above post were taken during the count, or in November and December this year, mostly in the Deer Lake area.