A white Christmas in the South Okanagan made for some heavy going for bird count participants, but they still managed to find 112 species in the Oliver Osoyoos count, held on Dec. 27.
“It was a good day and some interesting birds were seen. In Penticton we had 100 species, which is just above the 30-year average. And the Vaseux Lake count, we had 96, which is pretty decent,” said Dick Cannings.
Despite sometimes inclement weather, Cannings said some interesting birds were found along the way, including what he described on Facebook as an “amazing Wilson’s Warbler, seen in a tree with an only-slightly-less amazing Orange-crowned Warbler,” during the Penticton count.
During the Osoyoos count, Cannings also snared an image of a long-eared owl, using his cell phone pressed against his binoculars, one of five spotted during the day by the groups scouring the area.
“I was doing some heavy duty bushwhacking, so I didn’t want to take a tripod and a camera with me. I regretted it,” said Cannings, adding that overall the counts showed good diversity.
Though the numbers of species counted is good, the range of species is changing over time, Cannings said, mainly due to changing habitat. Species that were easy to find in the past are sometimes hard to find now, like pheasants, that were once common when the valley bottom still contained lots of ranch land, brush type habitat.
“That is almost all gone now. We used to see over 100 pheasants on all the Christmas counts; I think they got over 700 one year in Vernon. Now we are happy to get half a dozen,” he said. “But on the other hand the winters are getting warmer and warmer, we tend to have more open water and we have more loons and grebes and ducks.”
Cannings also said that while the Christmas bird counts are a fun activity, the data collected is used for monitoring bird population trends.
“In general, just under half our species are declining in North America and about a third are increasing. Those are the ones that do well around people, the ones that like brush second-growth habitat,” said Cannings.
Despite having to deal with heavy snow in the afternoon, the Oliver-Osoyoos count wasn’t the worst of the three Cannings has done this year. The Vaseux Lake count, on Dec. 19, had ideal conditions, he said, while the Penticton count, held a day later, was the worst.
“The Penticton count, I would have to say, was more miserable, because it was windier,” said Cannings, adding that there was also snow flurries to deal with.
Formerly, Cannings co-ordinated the annual counts across the country, but since being elected as the South Okanagan West Kootenay MP, has stepped back from that position, and only organized a couple of the local counts — Penticton and Vasuex Lake — this year.
“Usually, I do eight or nine of these counts and this year I am doing four. It is cutting back, but it does feel good to get out,” said Cannings. “I felt good after all that eating and Christmas to go for a big long hike all day, slogging through the snow.”
The counts were started in 1900 by ornithologist Frank Chapman, and have now spread to over 2,000 locations.