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Area bird count identifies 17 species

Thousands of volunteer “citizen scientists” join groups to count all the birds they can find within 24-kilometre-diameter circles on a single day
MVT Bird count Short-eared Owl - JBirch
A short-eared owl. Submitted photo

CARSTAIRS - If you were driving around the countryside in recent months near Carstairs, Didsbury or east of Queen Elizabeth II Highway (QEII), you may have spotted people in the woods, along road allowances or in farm yards peering through binoculars.

In spite of the very cold temperatures, they weren’t crazy. They were volunteers taking part in the annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC).

Since 1900, the Audubon Society has organized bird counts across the Western Hemisphere between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. 

Thousands of volunteer “citizen scientists” join groups to count all the birds they can find within 24-kilometre-diameter circles on a single day.

Each participant takes a section of the circle and notes the species of birds seen in that area, as well as the number of individual birds. 

The tallies are sent to the circle organizer, who then uploads the combined data to the Birds Canada website.  

The Birds Canada website states: “The information collected by thousands of volunteer participants forms one of the world’s largest sets of wildlife survey data. The results are used daily by conservation biologists and naturalists to assess the population trends and distribution of birds.”

This year 17 participants, organized by Don James of Carstairs, spent hours as field observers or bird feeder watchers within the Carstairs Blindline and Bergthal circles. 

A total of 17 species were identified in the Bergthal circle, with individual birds numbering approximately 2,100. A total of 25 species were identified in the Carstairs Blindline circle, with individual birds numbering approximately 1,050. 

Some highlights were hundreds of snow buntings and common redpolls; great-horned, short-eared and snowy owls; pine grosbeaks; a northern shrike; and two rough-legged hawks.

Don James explains how he got involved in the annual count.

“I have been interested in birds since young,” he said, “I admire them for their survival skills and their beauty. After many years of watching, I was asked by Brian Isaac to become involved with his long established Bergthal Count area east of the QEII for the Christmas Bird Count. 

“I and other volunteers have continued (with that circle). More recently we established the Blindline count area west of Highway 2A.”

Birders who take part in the CBC once, often become lifelong devotees. Linda and Gerry Neumiller joined the Bergthal count over 20 years ago. Linda writes, “We joined because I have been interested in birds all my life. My father was a knowledgeable bird watcher, so I learned from him and picked up his enthusiasm. I keep learning more and love getting others interested as well.”

Neil and Val Carleton of Carstairs began taking part in Christmas counts while living in Abbotsford, B.C., and now they participate in the Blindline circle count. 

“We’re enthusiastic birders all year round and enjoy the challenge of seeing how many species we can spot in a single winter day in Alberta. We count everything we see as we drive around our section of the circle, but it’s most productive to stop in farmyards where hedges and grain bins attract more species. A house with bird feeders can bring an amazing variety into the yard.”

If you’re interested in growing your ability to identify the birds of Alberta, participating in the count with another individual or team would give you a real boost. 

“The Christmas Bird Count gives me an incentive to learn how to identify the bird species in my area,” says Mona Trick. “You do not need to be a bird expert, because numerous resources are provided, such as photos of birds, recordings of bird songs, and (most importantly) help from other bird counters.”

The CBC has become an annual winter tradition for Jayne Carlielle from Olds. 

“Each year is different,” she said. “The weather, road conditions, snow cover, and the birds and other wildlife we discover on our route. Even spotting birds in the dead of winter is, at times, challenging but they are always awe inspiring, beautiful to observe and photograph. 

“After a long day of driving the backroads of rural Alberta it is satisfying to know our time was well spent and our observations are an important part of the bigger North American picture. By comparing numbers from this year with those of the past we can truly see what is happening to birds in our environment.”

Many volunteers are concerned about the sharply dropping numbers of birds in North America, due to habitat loss through sprawling cities, environmental degradation and fragmentation of forests. 

Karen Fahrlander expresses the motivation of many.

“My interest in collecting data for Citizen Science began through my love of photographing birds,” she said. “I marvel at the ability of tiny hummingbirds who manage to migrate such a long distance. Turkey vultures migrate to our area from South America. Mountain bluebirds are usually the first to arrive and survive our spring snowstorms. 

“I’m hoping to provide people with awareness of the challenges birds face and learn about ways we can reduce these challenges to help increase their numbers.”

Bob Peel, a retired Calgary Zoo curator, says he was thrilled to join local naturalists in the annual count. 

“In my 42-year professional animal care career I was actively involved with the propagation and reintroduction of threatened and critically-endangered flagship species such as greater prairie chicken, burrowing owl, greater sage grouse and whooping crane,” he said.

“Observing and gathering information in the Christmas Bird Count is a great way to appreciate nature and to promote environmental stewardship. As more and more people participate, we are creating an enormous data set that will identify population changes, assist research into the causes, and help develop action plans that will help birds and other wildlife prosper in the future.”

Don James is passionate about getting more people involved in the CBC.

“All the data has an important place in Citizen Science. I do encourage counters to draft more counters, even if only at residences on count day,” he said.

So if you enjoy birdwatching, whether out in the field or from the comfort of your kitchen window, consider taking part in the count next December.

Check the map at https://www.birdscanada.org/apps/cbc/mapviewer.jsp to see the bird count circles in Alberta, along with contact information for the organizers.