The Christmas Bird Count season begins!
Today is the first day of the Christmas Bird Count season, which goes from December 14th to January 5thevery year. Why am I inside typing on my laptop you ask? Well, I’m just getting a few errands out of the way before starting full tilt tomorrow with the Apex-Hedley Christmas count. I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts about the counts to come, because as all birders know, anticipation is half the thrill of the sport.
Although it’s not the most diverse count of the eight that I do, Apex-Hedley is the most Christmassy, a drive through high subalpine forests. Deep snow keeps our route firmly on the road, but we do a lot of walking through Christmas-card scenes of snow-covered firs and spruce. Other groups on the count spend the day on skis and snowshoes, looking for the holy grail of mountain counts, the White-tailed Ptarmigan. On a nice day, it’s the best of all counts, with flocks of Pine Grosbeaks, White-winged Crossbills, and Common Redpolls and occasional American Three-toed Woodpeckers. Our big hope is to get the chickadee grand slam—Black-capped, Mountain, Boreal and Chestnut-backed. The first three are easy, but the Chestnut-backed is definitely a rarity in these drier forests. The route finishes with a white-knuckle drive down hairpin bends into the Similkameen Valley, where we try to max out the American Dipper count and get low elevation species such as Pygmy Nuthatch and Canyon Wren before dark sets in.
After that I have a one-day break before the weekend, then it’s Kelowna on Saturday and Penticton on Sunday. Penticton is my home count, the one I started doing when I was six years old. This year I’m hopeful for a big list at Penticton, since there have been some nice birds around— Lesser Black-backed and Glaucous Gulls, up to four Anna’s Hummingbirds, a pair of Bewick’s Wrens. On December 20th its off to the Similkameen Valley again for the Cawston count. That count is often stuck in the narrow valley bottom, as high elevation access is difficult, but the small, dedicated band of counters often come up with some great birds. I like it because the valley is so wild compared to the Okanagan next door, with stands of huge ponderosa pine and cottonwoods along the river.
After the Christmas break we do the Vaseux Lake count on December 27th. This count is the least diverse of the Okanagan valley-bottom counts, but has excellent prospects for continental or Canadian high counts of Pygmy Nuthatch, Red Crossbill, Canyon Wren and other dry forest species. The lake is the shallowest of the big valley lakes and is often frozen by Christmas, but the river usually keeps a sizeable patch open at the north end, where a hundred or so Trumpeter and Tundra swans spend the winter, tipping up for water plants. After a two-day break we go south to Bridesville for another high-elevation count, but the one with the best chance in Canada for a White-headed Woodpecker. Then we celebrate New Year’s Eve with Oliver-Osoyoos, the biggest count in the interior of Canada in most years, with species totals up to 121 on occasion. You just never know what you might see at Oliver-Osoyoos—a Yellow-billed Loon on the lake, a Rock Wren on the cliffs or a Prairie Falcon rocketing after some ducks. My final count is at Princeton on January 2nd—a bit of a drive up the Similkameen, but a chance to bird with the great gang in the Vermilion Forks Naturalists, and always a chance to see a Great Gray Owl. Here’s hoping!
And these are just eight of the 2000-plus counts that are happening across North and South America this year. You can follow the results as they come in on the Audubon website. To find a count near you in Canada, check out the Bird Studies Canada website. And you can read more about the Christmas Bird Count tradition in the blog I wrote last year at this time. Happy holidays!