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