Skip to content

Environment File

A black-bearded sparrow was the star attraction during this year’s Christmas Bird Count in St. Albert. St. Albert held its 19th annual Christmas Bird Count on Dec. 27.

A black-bearded sparrow was the star attraction during this year’s Christmas Bird Count in St. Albert.

St. Albert held its 19th annual Christmas Bird Count on Dec. 27. Thick fog and a shortage of waxwings cut bird numbers in half compared to last year, but didn’t stop counters from spotting a new species: the Harris’s Sparrow, said count co-ordinator Alan Hingston

The Harris’s Sparrow is the only bird in the world that breeds exclusively in Canada, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It looks very similar to a house sparrow, except it has a big black beard/bib/necklace on its white chest.

It’s strange to see one of these birds in the city at this time of year, said birder Dan Stoker, who spotted the sparrow in his backyard — they usually whip by on the way to Texas. These sparrows have passed through his yard in previous years, he said, but this is the first time one of them has decided to stick around. “I guess I put out food that’s too appealing.” The bird seems to be hanging out with five juncos and drops by regularly.

Counters spotted just 5,220 birds during the all-day event, Hingston said, or about half what they saw last year. Thick fog cut visibility to just 100 metres at times, which made it tough to spot field birds such as snowy owls and partridges.

Most of the decline was due to a lack of bohemian waxwings, he said. Just 300 showed up — the third lowest year on record — compared to about 4,500 last year. Edmonton had similarly low numbers during its count. “For some reason they don’t seem to be here in numbers yet.”

Counters did spot record numbers of house finches and pine siskins, Hingston said, with several reporting visits from the giant pileated woodpecker at their feeders. One observer spotted a never-before-seen golden eagle, but that was on the day before the count.

Hingston thanked the 153 participants in the count for their efforts and the city for providing them with an environmental initiatives grant. The results will now be sent to Bird Studies Canada.

Strange open patches on the Sturgeon River are due to groundwater from construction, says the city, not pollution.

Local naturalists raised concerns this week over a large patch of open water on the Sturgeon near the St. Albert Community Garden in Riel Park.

The patch is next to a stormwater outfall or ditch, said observer Lilo Engler, and has stayed ice-free for months despite weeks of cold weather. “It means the city is dumping stuff into the river which is polluting it and keeping it open during the wintertime,” she said.

These patches have popped up at several outfalls over the years, says environmentalist Elke Blodgett, creating dangerously thin ice that’s tough to spot. “It’s so soft that anyone going to cross there with a snowmobile would fall in.”

These patches are due to groundwater seeping to the surface, said Leah Jackson, the city’s environmental manager. “When groundwater comes out, it’s way above zero,” she continued, which causes river ice to melt. The patch Engler spotted is due to work on a new pump station nearby, which started in November. Crews have dug down about six metres and have to pump groundwater out of their hole.

Crews are diverting the water through several screens and have been testing it for pollutants before it reaches the river, Jackson said. She expected them to be done in a month. They have also been asked to put thin ice warnings around the site.

Groundwater is always seeping into the Sturgeon, Jackson said, and thin patches can pop up anywhere. “People have to be very careful where they’re walking.”

push icon
Be the first to read breaking stories. Enable push notifications on your device. Disable anytime.
No thanks