A finch pauses on a branch while foraging for food at Buttertubs Marsh this week. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)

A finch pauses on a branch while foraging for food at Buttertubs Marsh this week. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)

A charm of finches lifts Christmas bird count numbers in Nanaimo

14,000 more birds tallied than in last year’s count

There might have been more decoys than ducks spotted in the Nanaimo River Estuary, but volunteers ultimately tallied almost 15,000 more birds than in last year’s Christmas Bird Count.

Volunteers covered off COVID-19 precautions by using their own cars or riding with someone in their bubbles to get out to 20 birdwatching sites such as the Nanaimo River Estuary and local lakes and parks throughout Nanaimo on Sunday.

Heidi van Vliet, a biologist who is this year’s bird count data compiler, said COVID precautions kept some people home over the holidays who wouldn’t normally be in town, which made for a different mix of volunteers compared to past years.

“It’s kind of COVID-friendly anyway because of having Nanaimo sorted into 20 different areas,” van Vliet said.

Her team covered the Nanaimo River Estuary where duck species numbers appeared to be down compared to previous counts, although as of Tuesday, van Vliet said, she still had to compare numbers to prior years.

“Usually up at Nanaimo River Estuary there’s tons of ducks and this year there wasn’t,” she said. “It was similar for the Cedar team as well. They were expecting more ducks. I’m not sure about Cedar, but at the estuary there were hunters everywhere, so we think that the ducks just knew not to go to those spots … because we were seeing more decoys than there were ducks.”

Van Vliet said they could see more ducks farther out onto the water, but they were too far away to count them accurately or identify the birds.

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Overall, 118 species were counted compared to 113 counted in 2019.

But there was a big jump in the number of individual birds of all species with more than 40,000 birds counted compared to about 26,000 in 2019.

Van Vliet said the number of species counted is up, but that is not unusual. What is unusual is the total number of birds counted, which hasn’t been higher than 30,000 in the previous five years of bird counts.

“One thing that’s interesting is that we’re having a finch irruption this year,” she said. “So we are getting really high numbers of finches, pine siskins being the most notable ones.”

Last year’s tallied 900 pine siskins, but this year there were 8,000, a number van Vliet credited to the finch irruption. The pine siskin is a small sparrow-like bird that is widespread across North America and flocks around feeders.

READ ALSO: Birdwatchers view nature through a different lens

Crossbill numbers were up, too. This year 311 of the birds were tallied compared to just 31 last year.

“They’re a pretty cool bird. Their bills are crossed to be able to pry open pine cones,” van Vliet said. “We also got white wing crossbills, which are not normally down here in the winter time. I think they would be more of a mountain or interior bird … so that would be a rare species that we wouldn’t normally get. We’ve also got quite a few owls this year.”

Great Horned, barred, northern saw-whet and barn owls were all noted in this year’s count of 25 owls spotted with 14 of those being great horned owls. Just five owls were spotted in 2019.

READ ALSO: Nanoose Bay photographer self-publishes Vancouver Island birding guide

READ ALSO: Fewer birds tallied in Nanaimo’s 2019 winter count



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An eagle drying his feathers prepared to take off from its perch in a dead tree at Buttertubs Marsh this week. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)

An eagle drying his feathers prepared to take off from its perch in a dead tree at Buttertubs Marsh this week. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)

A heron clears trees while lifting off from Buttertubs Marsh to find another fishing spot this week. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)

A heron clears trees while lifting off from Buttertubs Marsh to find another fishing spot this week. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)

A red wing black bird sings from his perch above the bull rushes and reeds in Buttertubs Marsh this week. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)

A red wing black bird sings from his perch above the bull rushes and reeds in Buttertubs Marsh this week. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)