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Bird is the word

Annual bird count data being finalized for Athabasca
20201227 Barred Owl_WEB
Merilyn Peruniak was able to photograph a barred owl Christmas Day. Barred owls are shy so it is fairly rare to get a photo, Harvey Scott explained. He added the owl has a distinctive cry that sounds like, "Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?"

ATHABASCA - After months of being confined to indoor quarters, many Athabascans welcomed the opportunity to participate in the 27th annual Athabasca Christmas Bird count from Dec. 23 to 30, with feeder day taking place Dec. 27. 

Twenty-two area naturalists spent hours outside that day, trying to sneak a peak at some of the area's boreal winter birds and enjoying the great outdoors, said outgoing coordinator Harvey Scott, adding 59 bird lovers from around the region also had their eyes on their back yard feeders and found a good diversity of winter birds. 

“There are a few bits of information we need to check or add, but the basic data is correct and quite complete” said Scott. “Our new count coordinator Ursula Brant has done a good job of gaining a number of new observer counters and a very skilled count data analyst in Danna Schock.”  

Scott said Schock compiled and analyzed the results on Excel and Wayne Brehaut, the long-standing data entry compiler, put together the results in their usual format.

“I thank all of our leadership and results handling team for a job very well done,” Scott said. 

Brant added the Audubon Society gave groups the option of taking part in the count due to the pandemic, but once the group decided to go ahead, Brant was tasked with quickly preparing groups and finding more people to help with the count. 

"We decided to do the best we could with what we had available and coordinate the count on some level," she said. "I want to give a big thank you to all the participants and I look forward to later this year when we can actually meet and make a better plan. With the people that we got we will have a better chance to get everything in line for December and we look forward to that." 

Twenty-two people in the field traveled a distance of 340 km, most by car, and 20 km on foot, counting a total of 2,989 individual birds across 38 species. 

“Many serious birders have expressed concerns that our Athabasca bird diversity and numbers are generally low,” said Scott. “Several large academic research programs have confirmed that, and often point to significant habitat loss in the boreal breeding grounds and some of the pollutants we put into our atmosphere. Several previous Athabasca counts have shown lower species variety and total numbers. This count has returned both a reasonable diversity of species and total individual numbers close to the 3,000 mark we have seen in recent years.” 

Scott noted that it was likely due to the pandemic that there were more field and feeder counters this year, which helped provide higher numbers. 

“Of course, numbers can correlate with the number of people out watching and this year we had quite an increase in counters,” he said. “Also, there are particular bird species that can bump up total count numbers from year to year. Snow buntings are one species that contributes many hundreds or even thousands to a count total, this year we found only 10 individual snowbirds. Over the years we have seen their numbers fluctuate with cattle herds fed outdoors where the birds love to clean up left over grain and other feeds. With the reduction of farm cow herds, we seem to see fewer large snowbird flocks.” 

Overall, Scott said observers found a nice variety of winter, central, mixed wood boreal species, including three brown creepers — small and elusive, brownish birds that creep along close to the tree bark — and both white and the more unusual red-breasted nuthatches were found in relatively good numbers. 

“We found three spruce grouse, nineteen ruffed grouse, but no sharp-tail grouse, which are "threatened" in status; we used to see good numbers of sharp-tails in the airport area,” said Scott. “Crossbills are shy creatures who can only be found by keen-eyed field observers, usually in the Crooked Lake Watershed wilds and this year they found 12 white-winged crossbills, but no reds.” 

There was one late migrant, a yellow-shafted flicker, and a good number of common woodpeckers were found — 60 downy, 54 hairy and 13 pileated. 

"The reclusive American three-toed and black-backed were found mainly in the Crooked Lake wild lands,” he said. “We often have species leave on their migration south late or arrive back up here early. In the late hangers-on group were the eagles, of course and a starling. This can be a bit early for the dark-eyed juncos and purple finches we found. However, with climate change things are changing and we can expect 'weird' (for here) birds more regularly than we have seen in recent years.” 

This is Scott’s last year overseeing the bird count as he officially hands the reins off the Brant. 

“It has been fun to help organize this Athabasca bird count for the last 27 years and I have dedicated bird lovers to thank for making it happen every year,” he said. “Thank you for your good contribution of time and energy to this event. We have made a small, but important difference to the lives and livelihood of our bird relations.” 


Count by species:  

  Bald eagle 5

   Black-billed Magpie 59

  Black-capped chickadee 570  

      Blue jay 145 

   Boreal chickadee 13 

  Brown creeper 3

  Common Raven 172

  Dark-eyed Junco 4

  European starling 3

  Golden eagle 1 

  Gray jay 36 

  Great gray owl 7 

  Great Horned Owl 1 

  Evening Grosbeak 135 

 Pine Grosbeak 410 

  Ruffed grouse 19 

  Spruce grouse 3 

  Unspecified grouse 1 

  House Sparrow 94 

  Northern flicker 1 

  Northern Goshawk 1 

 Northern saw-whet owl 1 

 Red-breasted nuthatch 32 

 White-breasted nuthatch 61 

  Pine siskin 51 

  Purple Finch 8 

  Common redpoll 80 

  Hoary redpoll 10 

  Unspecified redpoll 287 

  Rock pigeon 233 

  Snow bunting 10 

  Unspecified sparrow 3 

  Bohemian Waxwing 296 

  Cedar waxwing 90 

 White-winged crossbill 12 

 American three-toed woodpecker 4 

 Black-backed woodpecker 1 

  Downy Woodpecker 60 

  Hairy woodpecker 54 

  Pileated woodpecker 13