Biologist and bird count data compiler Heidi van Vliet and Martin Angelstad peer through binoculars across Buttertubs Marsh during the Nanaimo Christmas Bird Count on Dec. 27 when the Millstone River topped its banks and flowed across the trail. (Photo submitted)

Biologist and bird count data compiler Heidi van Vliet and Martin Angelstad peer through binoculars across Buttertubs Marsh during the Nanaimo Christmas Bird Count on Dec. 27 when the Millstone River topped its banks and flowed across the trail. (Photo submitted)

Nanaimo’s birds get counted over Christmas in spite of ‘fowl’ weather

Dark-eyed juncos most common, followed by seagulls and robins

Heavy rain and high water flows in local rivers conspired to curtail the number of birds spotted in this winter’s Nanaimo Christmas Bird Count.

Volunteers – approximately 75, about the same number as last year – turned out for count day Dec. 27 in the middle of count week, Dec. 24-31.

The annual bird count tallies the total number of individual birds and total number of species observed within a circle 24 kilometres wide that is centred on a landmark, which in Nanaimo’s case is the Bastion, said Heidi van Vliet, a biologist and official bird count data compiler.

The total number of bird species tallied on count day was 107, with the final tally totalling 110 species for count week when only the number of species observed for the week are added to the count. The total number of birds counted was 21,595.

Van Vliet said both the total species and individual bird numbers counted are down compared to a five-year average of 118 species and 31,079 individuals, but added that could be due to heavy rain and flooding in some of the usual count locations.

In spite of the weather, volunteer bird counters covered 513 kilometres on foot, by boat or by car, in the count area that included Lantzville, Nanaimo, Gabriola Island, Protection Island, Saysutshun, Mount Benson, Duke Point, Nanaimo River Estuary and Cedar-Yellow Point.

Among the rare or less commonly seen birds in the area this year was the yellow-rumped warbler.

“We usually have one or two warblers in the Christmas bird count, maybe. An orange-crowned warbler is more common, but usually [warblers] wouldn’t over-winter here, which is why that’s an interesting one,” van Vliet said.

Another species not commonly seen was a short-eared owl, which van Vliet said hasn’t been counted before, at least not in recent years.

“There has been a couple of years where it was seen on count week, but not in the past few years, so it was nice getting it on count day,” she said.

A swamp sparrow was also spotted. The bird normally isn’t seen west of the Rocky Mountains in Canada and mostly winters in the U.S. southeast, Mexico and uncommonly on the U.S. west coast.

“They don’t have much of a range here on Vancouver Island, but usually one is seen here over the winter … swamp sparrow wasn’t even on our list of usual species, so I don’t think it’s been seen on a Nanaimo count in many years, at least,” van Vliet said.

The species that dominated this year’s count were the dark-eyed junco, of which about 2,900 were tallied, and the glaucous-winged gull – the most common gull to the Nanaimo area – and the American robin, with about 2,000 each.

Robins are in the Nanaimo area all year ‘round, van Vliet said, and don’t show up just in the spring.

“I think it’s just a misconception,” she said. “They are here all year, it’s just in the spring time they’re singing, so that’s often what makes them more noticeable. They’re into their breeding mode, so that’s why people notice them because they’re singing all the time. There are a lot of robins this year. I guess just because there are so many out there, people are noticing them.”

The annual Christmas bird count was started on Christmas Day, 1900, by ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, one of the early officers of the Audubon Society. The count was proposed to replace the Christmas side hunt – hunters formed teams and competed to shoot the biggest pile of feathered quarry – and provide an annual bird species census that could generate data to be used in determining the health of ecosystems and bird species.

READ ALSO: Ladysmith-Chemainus bird count brings some pleasant surprises, notable absences



chris.bush@nanaimobulletin.com

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