A flock of birders descended on Grimm’s Deli, Tuesday, December seventeenth to participate in Pemberton’s nineteenth Christmas Bird Count. This tally of all species seen for the day provides valuable information for conservation biologists and citizen scientists; population distribution and trends for various species can be tracked over the years. The participants in these counts have one thing in common-enough of an interest in birds to spend the day traipsing about through the bushes regardless of the temperature and the terrain.
On Tuesday, the snow was still falling when my group began to descend from the “t” junction at Ivy lake. Other groups had spread out to various areas within the twenty four kilometer count circle, armed with notepads, binoculars, cameras and snacks. No one was particularly optimistic about the numbers of species we would see or hear, given the limited visibility and the muffled soundscape.
Sure enough, no birds fluttered about in the snow laden branches at the start of our descent. I imagined them huddled together close to the tree trunks, waiting for the weather to change; if my imagination was correct, the birds never gave themselves away with idle chatter either, for we heard little except the misleading chirp of snowflakes skittering on our Gore-tex jackets. Just as the eyes see bird shapes where only pinecones exist, so do the ears create bird calls out of nothing. Eventually, we heard, then saw a couple of Black Capped Chickadees, flitting through some pines gathering seeds. I felt a surge of excitement now that the real birding had begun.
Alas, these Chickadees were not a sign that the birds had relinquished their hiding spots en masse. Fortunately, the others in my group were appreciative of the other offerings of a walk through the woods on a snowy day: lichen festooned on the branches, a solitary squirrel curled up against a tree trunk, the muffled scrunch of our footsteps and eventually, the stories we shared.
Once we reached the valley floor, the snow changed to light rain and we still only had one species on our list; we decided to eat our lunches on a bluff overlooking the train tracks. Sheltering under some trees, we munched away, stopping occasionally to pinpoint any sound that seemed somewhat birdlike and this stillness paid off when we saw a Pacific Wren then a Hairy Woodpecker.
After lunch, we continued towards Happy Trail, adding two more Hairy Woodpeckers to the tally. We worked hard for these-hearing their tapping first, then stalking them with our necks craned until they appeared at the top of some cottonwoods. It was while we were searching for another tapping woodpecker that I saw the Northern Shrike sitting atop a pine tree, hunting.
With four species on our list, we headed back and into the Bathtub Trail, anticipating some American Dippers or maybe a Great Blue Heron along the river.
Instead of these two birds, we added two Bald Eagles to the list. Common sense says that the strange cacophonous screeching that we had heard on the far bank of the river came from these eagles but none of us had ever heard a sound like this before. We considered chickens being slaughtered, a small engine refusing to start, kids playing and house renovations gone awry before the sound died out. A couple of minutes later, the eagles flew by and we decided they must have made the unusual sounds; these are the surprising conundrums that add excitement to the day.
With our part of the count circle completed we rejoined the rest of the groups to compile our information for the organizers to submit, enjoying wonderful hot soup and chilli while we shared our sightings. In total, there were fifty-one species observed, which is lower than average as was the total number of birds seen. Given the weather, these numbers are not too surprising so it will be interesting to discover what the tallies will be once all the Christmas Counts are completed on January Fifth.