The long-billed Dowitcher is a peculiar bird. A rotund ball of beige, and mottled white and black feathers balanced on thin legs. The shorebird’s long, slender beak is perfect for probing mud and sand for its preferred diet of aquatic invertebrates.
The bird breeds in the arctic, so seeing a flock of 80 Dowitchers at Port Moody Inlet during the Christmas Bird Count was a thrill for local volunteers.
“It would be impossible to miss,” says Tri-Cities Christmas Bird Count coordinator Victoria Otton. “Very eye-catching.”
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While this year’s count on New Year’s Eve was slightly smaller than in the years before COVID, there were still 11 groups that went birding.
Birders count all the birds they see and hear during a count. However, they’re most interested in oddities and rarities. “Not something you see every day,” Otton says.
The most common species this year? Mallard ducks. Followed by Canada geese and the common crow.
In the Tri-Cities, 71 species were tallied — a little down from the average of about 83 — with just under 8,000 birds counted. Counts can vary year-to-year depending on several factors including the weather. Hummingbirds are hard to spot in the rain. Varied thrushes only come down from the mountains when the peaks are covered in snow.
Within a designated count circle, volunteers will go to predetermined areas. In the Tri-Cities, these include DeBoville Slough, Colony Farm Regional Park, the shoreline at Port Moody and along the Coquitlam River. Minnekhada Regional Park is also a location, but it was skipped this year due to trail closures stemming from the fall’s wildfire.
“We go to where the birds are,” says Otton. “We’re not going to go to Coquitlam Centre parking lot because there’s not going to be birds.”
Some of the best indicators of a healthy ecosystem
Since the dataset is so large and has been going on for so long, it offers valuable insight into trends of wintering bird populations. In just the Burke Mountain Naturalists’ data, for example, the expanding range of Anna’s hummingbird can be seen. The feisty fluttering bird was first counted in 1998 with two noted. None were counted again until 2008 and its numbers have been rising ever since, In 2019, birders counted 124.
On a bigger scale, the vast data has been used to highlight species at risk.
“Since birds are some of the best indicators of ecosystem health, consistent monitoring of bird occurrence and populations tells us a lot,” says Yousif Attia, Christmas Bird Count Coordinator for Birds Canada. “Declines in bird populations detected using trend data can help scientists zero in on conservation priorities.”
Counting for a century
The Christmas Bird Count is one of the longest-running citizen science projects in the world.
For more than 100 years, friends of a feather have gathered during the December holidays to count the birds they see and hear. But it wasn’t always so.
As the story goes, folks used to compete on Christmas Day for the largest prey: feathered or furred. With concerns over declining bird populations, ornithologist Frank M. Chapman proposed a new holiday tradition: a bird count.
On Christmas Day in 1900, 27 counts were held. Today, there are more than 2,000 counts around in the Western Hemisphere. In Canada, there are approximately 475 counts.
The data is important in understanding wintering bird populations. And, it turns out, winter is the best time of year to count them.
“It’s actually easier because there are more birds around. They’re not the species that you see in the summer. You’re not going to see swallows, the neotropical migrants that come here to breed,” Otton says. “What you see are the birds that overwinter here, and they also tend to congregate in the winter, especially here on the coast.”
Each count area is assigned a circle 24 km in diameter — and a date. The circle that covers the Tri-Cities has its centre in Pitt Meadows. It was the now-defunct Alouette Field Naturalists who requested the circle, getting it established in 1972.
Since 1989, the Burke Mountain Field Naturalists have been managing the count areas in the circle on this side of the Pitt River. The two counts are run independently then tallied together before totals are sent to Birds Canada, the organization that handles Canada’s Christmas Bird Count. The count is overseen by the Audubon Society.
Attend just one count and it’s likely you’ll be back, according to Otton.
Groups can have birders of all ages and abilities, even those who have never been out. If you’re sharp-eyed and sound of ear, you’ll do just fine.