Few surprises in this year’s bird count

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26-year trend show ravens, finches, downys up

The bird with a face-full of jam was once again the star of this year’s St. Albert bird count.

Some 154 ornithologists spent Dec. 28 counting crows and cataloguing chickadees as part of the city’s 26th annual Christmas Bird Count.

This year’s counters locked onto 4,598 birds from 33 species, or a little over half as many as they spotted last year, reports interim count co-ordinator Dan Stoker.

This was the smallest number of birds spotted in the count since 2004, count records suggest. As usual, the deciding factor was the bohemian waxwing, which was in short supply this year at 101 birds compared to last year’s 2,125.

“The count that happened in Edmonton just prior to the St. Albert one had huge numbers of waxwings,” Stoker said, with some 19,448 detected – almost half of the birds in the count.

Stoker suspects that waxwings may have gobbled up all of St. Albert’s mountain ash berries earlier in December and moved onto Edmonton.

While the 2015 count saw 12 new records set, this one had just one record-breaker: the house finch.

The house finch is about the size of a sparrow and first showed up in St. Albert in 2006, count records suggest. It has set a new record in all but two years since, with an all-time-high of 346 identified in this year’s count.

Roughly the size of a sparrow, house finches are streaky brown in colour, with males looking like they were dipped in raspberry jam due to their red heads and chests, said Stoker. Biologists believe female house finches prefer to mate with the reddest males they can find; as a male’s red colour comes from his diet, a redder male may be better at finding food.

Unusually, observers did not spot any snowy owls during this year’s count or during count week. The only other time this has happened in count history was 1995.

It’s tough to suss out trends in snowy owls as their winter numbers depend on the amount of food up north, said Jocelyn Hudon, curator of ornithology at the Royal Alberta Museum. In lean years, they show up in great numbers down south and can fly as far south as the United States.

While there may have been a very slight dip in their numbers in the St. Albert count since 1991, data from the Audubon Society suggests snowy owl numbers have been on the rise Alberta-wide during Christmas counts since the 1950s.

Grosbeaks and crossbills were absent from this year’s St. Albert count, Stoker said. These birds are influenced by the state of the pinecone crop up north, with big crops there resulting in more birds here.

Trends in birding

A rough look at the St. Albert count suggests that the house finch and Eurasian collared dove are now permanent residents of this region, having made consistent appearances in the count since they were first spotted in 2006 and 2010, respectively, Stoker said. The evening grosbeak, in contrast, has disappeared, last showing up in the count in 2004.

A Gazette analysis suggests that downy woodpeckers and red-breasted nuthatches have all seen slight increases in population since the start of the St. Albert count – likely a reflection of a rise in the number of bird feeders and feeder watchers in the city over that same period.

Ravens have also moved in volume into the city, with less than 10 showing up in counts prior to 1995 compared to up to 285 in recent years.

“This is a bird we rarely used to see near people,” Hudon said, but they appear to have lost their fear of humans. While a few breed in town, the surge of ravens we have in winter is likely due to country birds moving to the city to feed.

Christmas bird counts help give researchers a long-term perspective on bird populations and have inspired other citizen-driven research projects such as eBird, Hudon said..

“It’s really introduced citizen science to people.”

Count results will now be forwarded to Bird Studies Canada.

Explore the data

Want to see trends in St. Albert’s bird populations yourself? The Gazette has put the bird count data online at goo.gl/eWSQKa. Use the chart tab to create graphs to share with others.

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About Author

Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.