Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Christmas Bird Counts - a winter birding tradition

For birders, Christmas is sometimes more about what is perched on the tree as opposed to what’s under it.  However, one can be surprised – my wife once gave me a pair of optically perfect 1x binoculars made with two empty toilet paper rolls.  As good as they were, she did allow me to trade them in for the binoculars of my choice.

Christmas means Christmas bird counts (CBC’s) and, for one of our team, that means photo shoots and press interviews.
Phil as he appeared in the Calgary Herald - photo by Ted Rhodes of the Herald
Phil is the compiler of the Calgary CBC and recently was featured in the Calgary Herald.  You can read the story at: http://www.calgaryherald.com/technology/Birders+eager+start+counting/7690925/story.html

Prior to the counts, Ray and I did a couple of excursions to bone up on the calls of the winter birds and to do a bit of scouting.  Of course, we are still looking for a couple of mammals but they seem to have migrated south with the birds.
Our first trip was to the mountains and, as usual, the scenery was fantastic.  However, both birds and mammals were rather scarce so it was a quick trip.
Looking west from the Spray Lakes Road
Last Friday, we did a scouting trip to the Weaselhead Environmental Park in southwest Calgary.  Right in the parking lot we were treated to close-up views of a male White-winged Crossbill.
White-winged Crossbill
Walking through the park, we saw most of the expected winter birds including two sightings of immature Northern Goshawks.
Northern Goshawk
Finally, on Sunday the Calgary count day was upon us.  Six of us started pre-dawn on the ridge overlooking the Weaselhead, diligently counting Black-billed Magpies as they flew into the suburbs.  After a short walk to some feeders in the park, we split up into three groups to cover the Weaselhead north of the River and the Tsuu T├Čna lands to the west.  This count is done almost entirely on foot so we were fortunate that the snow was not too deep and the weather was mild (for Calgary!). 
Ray with the Elbow River below
Ray and I had an okay day with all of 20 species but the six of us combined had a fantastic day with 38 species.  We are expecting Phil to bestow great honours on us when he presents his summary of the count in early January!

Today, Ray and I participated in the High River CBC to the south of Calgary.  This count has fewer participants so the assigned areas can be quite large – we had the entire northeast quadrant excluding the town itself.  Pat Diehl of Priddis joined us and we cruised the country roads in search of birds.  Fortunately, it is a good finch year so we had Common Redpolls at almost every stop.
Common Redpoll
When doing the CBC`s, one must count every bird even if the compiler might adjust the number later.   For example, in Calgary the same Bald Eagle might be sighted by 5 different parties so Phil has some secret algorithm that he uses to come up with an official number.  Counting birds is an art in itself and my experience is that we tend to undercount large flocks.  At a glance, can you estimate the number of House Sparrows in the photo below?
How many House Sparrows?
By my count there are at least 30 in the photo.  You can imagine the excitement we had today recording 416 House Sparrows and 529 Common Redpolls.  I just don’t understand why Mike skipped the CBC’s in favour of birding in Costa Rica!

As a team, we have one more outing planned – the Snake' s Head CBC near Sundre (northwest of Calgary) on December 31st.  That evening, we will take our wives out to dinner to celebrate what has been a great year for us.
Best wishes to you all for a happy and birdy holiday season.

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