By Dennis Horwood
It was pretty hard to tell exactly when dawn broke on the morning of December 16 – low, rain-laden clouds seemed to touch the rooftops, keeping any hint of sunlight well hidden.
It was the kind of morning when it seemed most logical to brew an extra cup of coffee and curl up on the couch with a warm, friendly book. Unfortunately, about 15 intrepid bird watchers didn’t have this option. They signed up weeks earlier to take part in the annual bird count, regardless whether there was rain, wind, cold, snow or sleet.
By 9.30 a.m., when it was finally light enough to see across the street, the watchers organized into different field parties and headed out with notebook and binoculars.
What exactly was there to see on such a soggy Saturday morning? Well, the pollution control centre will predictably have a flotilla of birds floating on the bubbling and somewhat warmer water.
Luckily, rafts of scaups, ring-billed ducks, and goldeneyes were present in good numbers. A few mallards, bufflehead, and wigeon rounded out the waterfowl totals. By the time we added about 50 mew gulls, a few glaucous-winged gulls, and a heron along Sumgas Creek, the species total was almost in the double digits.
While the waterfowl were being tallied, another group was surveying the calm surface of Minette Bay. At this time of year, small numbers of loons and grebes dive into the depths, while mergansers search the shallows for fish or small marine invertebrates. The trees lining the shore are home to a few birds such as varied thrush and pine siskins. On this day, the overhanging branches supported only one very wet bald eagle.
After the completion of the new smelter, access to the outer estuary continues to be very difficult. Thankfully, Rio Tinto recognizes how important this area is for birds and willingly escorted three field parties across the plant to access one of the best places for wintering birds.
The birds didn’t like the weather, however, any more than their observers and chose to hunker down in the meadows above high tide. This year, high numbers of killdeer and dunlin stood out against the background of soaked grass and weeds. Canada geese and a very rare greater white-fronted goose were huddled together in a sheltered bay. A few gulls flew against the wind and rain, but mostly the sky was clear of avian wings.
As vital as the estuary is for birds, so too are our parks, walkways and backyards. Thankfully, nine individuals stayed home and watched their feeding stations throughout the day. This meant a good number of Steller’s jays, juncos, sparrows, doves, and even crows were added to the list.
One good thing about having a Christmas bird count on a bad-weather day is that participants are limited to about eight hours in which to count. The final tally was both interesting and in a few cases, disappointing. Documenting high numbers of shorebirds was an unexpected bonus.
So too was the lone white-fronted goose who might have wondered how it ended up in northern B.C. rather than Mexico. The total number of bald eagles was low, at 82, as were the 10 great blue herons. Delightfully, 11 trumpeter swans were added to the count, having been absent from 2016’s count.
The final numbers were actually quite good considering that the odds of finding any birds were low. Fifty-six species were reported with a total number of individual birds being just over 3,000.
Christmas bird counts continue to be a popular, North American event. This winter count has also spawned backyard counts, monthly surveys, breeding birds surveys, and hundreds of bird festivals throughout the year.
The Kitimat Valley Naturalists sponsor some of these and encourage anyone with a birding interest to attend. For more information, the Kitimat Centennial Museum staff can provide further contact information.
Why not make 2108 a year to add some new birds to your outdoor experience?