A snowy owl is seen here perched on a fence post. (SUBMITTED)
Brandon’s 33rd official Christmas Bird Count (CBC) took place on Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013. Unlike last year’s weather with a balmy high of -9C this year’s count was more a battle with the elements. The count started off with a low of -26C and the temperature only managed to climb to a feeble high of -18C. However it was the stiff east and southeasterly wind really cooled things down. And this combined with some periods of light snow made it a real challenge to find where the birds were "hiding." At least the snow depths were below normal and walking and driving anywhere was generally easy.
Like last year there were again 11 field parties but with 31 participants covering the 24 km-diameter count circle centered at the junction of Victoria Avenue and 18th Street. These hardy souls logged a total of 944.5 km by vehicle and over 21 hours by foot. There were also 32 feeder watchers this year, the highest number to date. Feeder watchers both within and outside city limits contribute significantly to the count as they keep tabs on what shows during that day at their front and backyard feeders. Unfortunately, there are many "abandoned" feeders throughout the city resulting in fewer feeding opportunities for a variety of birds.
In spite of the inclement weather the Brandon count this year with 39 species was the fourth highest since its beginnings in 1981. This was somewhat surprising considering that winter began in earnest in November and with the possible exception of the small varieties of crab-apples there seemed to be little available for fruit or berries for the birds. As usual there were some pockets of open water on the Assiniboine River at various locations. However, while there was a wide diversity of species overall numbers were down in comparison with some years. No new species were added to the overall Brandon Christmas bird count list this year and only one, a Brown Creeper, was seen in count week ie three days before and three days after count day but not count day.
The following is a summary of this year’s count day birds seen by the field parties and feeder watchers. The previous year’s (2012) count day numbers are included in brackets for interest.
Mallard 2 (0); Common Goldeneye 2 (2); Gray Partridge 55 (103); Ruffed Grouse 1 (0); Sharp-tailed Grouse 36 (52); Bald Eagle 2 (1); Golden Eagle 1 (0); Rock Pigeon 381 (484); Eurasian Collard Dove 2 (0); Eastern Screech-Owl 1 (0); Great Horned Owl 5 (4); Snowy Owl 2 (3); Downy Woodpecker 73 (66); Hairy Woodpecker 52 (31); Northern Flicker 4 (2); Merlin 3 (3); Northern Shrike 4 (1); Blue Jay 46 (54); Black-billed Magpie 93 (121); American Crow 7 (15); Common Raven 181 (205); Black-capped Chickadee 319 (364); Red-breasted Nuthatch 17 (97); White-breasted Nuthatch 84 (112); Golden-crowned Kinglet 2 (4); American Robin 1 (3); European Starling 46 (66); Cedar Waxwing 6 (6); Snow Bunting 795 (480); White-throated Sparrow 3 (1); Harris’s Sparrow 1 (0); Dark-eyed Junco 31 (54); Northern Cardinal 1 (0); Purple Finch 1 (3); House Finch 16 (117); Common Redpoll 14 (778); Pine Siskin 12 (57); American Goldfinch 19 (1) and House Sparrow 2253 (3472).
Total species: 39 (46) and total individual birds: 4,573 (8,029).
The good coverage of the Assiniboine River corridor again this year by the Gordon Ogilvie field party resulted in the Mallard and Common Goldeneye observations. To date there have been nine species of waterfowl recorded for the Brandon count since 1981. Upland game bird numbers were definitely down, especially for Gray Partridges. The two wintering adult Bald Eagles were a treat. Time was if an eagle was seen in winter in southwestern Manitoba it most likely would have been a Golden Eagle but this does not appear to be the case anymore. Bald Eagle populations continue to increase with more nesting taking place throughout the region. The very small population of Eurasian Collared-Doves continue to preserve in Brandon due in no small part to Evelyn Thompson’s feeders. It remains to be seen if this species will continue to expand its range in Manitoba.
Many people, including non-birders, are fascinated by owls. They are always a sought after species on any Christmas count. For only the fifth time in Brandon’s count history an Eastern Screech-Owl was seen on the count, this one in a nest box at Jean Horton’s residence. While Brandon has a very small population of these small but hardy owls they are seldom seen. Interestingly enough both Downy and Hairy Woodpecker numbers were up, some of the few species quite active at bird feeders in this count. The many dead and dying trees along the river corridor may also be providing increased food availability for these species. For the third year in a row Northern Flickers were recorded. In fact this striking woodpecker has now been seen in six of the last ten Brandon counts. Surprisingly no Pileated Woodpeckers were seen again on this count.
While numbers of the much more common Black-billed Magpie seemed to dip a bit this year American Crows are doing fine. In fact since the late 1990’s the latter species is now regularly seen in Brandon during the winter months albeit in small numbers. The Common Raven continues to climb in numbers since the early 2000’s and is now a very prevalent part of the local birdlife during winter. Following last year’s record numbers Red-breasted Nuthatches were predictably few and far between for this count as is typical of this cyclic species. Perhaps more surprising was the almost total absence of American Robins on count day. Fortunately one made a brief appearance in Pat Hudon’s back yard. This hardy thrush is now seen regularly on Christmas bird counts and depends heavily on trees and shrubs with berries such as mountain ash.
So far this winter the waxwings have been conspicuous by their almost total absence. This may not be a bad thing if you happen to need to park your vehicle beside a berry laden tree but the loud swirling flocks of Bohemian Waxwings are very much a part of most Manitoba winters. Fortunately for count day a small flock of six Cedar Waxwings made an appearance in the yard of Richard and Faye Kusnick near Kemnay. These sleek waxwings are somewhat smaller and much lighter colored than the darker and somewhat larger Bohemian Waxwing.
This year two species of native Zonotrichia (genus) sparrows were seen on count day those being three individual White-throated Sparrows at different locations and a single Harris’s Sparrow. The Harris’s Sparrow was present at the feeders of Jack & Arlene Elves feeder in Chater. And for the fourth time in Brandon’s count day history a Northern Cardinal was present, this time at the back yard feeders of Brian & Kathy McKiernan’s residence on Oak Bluff Road. A single Purple Finch was seen by Verne Gilbertson at his feeder. House Finch numbers were down significantly.
Like last year the real story with this year’s Brandon count revolves around the winter finches. However, the difference is that unlike year’s record or near record numbers of winter finches there were none or almost none this year. This is not necessarily surprising given that most species of winter finches are cyclic and highly migratory as they search for food. This year no Pine Grosbeaks or either crossbill species were seen. Dan Chranowski had the only flock of Common Redpolls. There were very few Pine Siskins and, almost as usual, no Evening Grosbeaks. And as seems to be the case in winters where redpolls are absent or nearly so more American Goldfinches are recorded. This count was no different as goldfinches were seen at several different locations. There certainly is nothing "half hardy" about these small finches which most folks think of as being birds of summer only.
This year’s field participants for the Brandon count (in alphabetical order) were: Erica Alex, Ken & Colleen Barclay, Dave Barnes, Colin Blyth, Scott Blyth, Linda Boyes, Dan & daughter Deanna Chranowski, Cal Cuthbert (compiler), Allison Danielson, Deb Foster, Roger Groska, Jean Horton, Ted Jordon, Ryan Lowe, Brian & Lynn Manns, Devin May, Gordon Ogilvie, Louanne Reid, Millie Reid, Gillian Richards, Murray & Carole Sangster, Liz Shewchuk, Harold Stewart, Ken Ure, Lynn Whidden, Wendy Wolfe and Margaret Yorke.
Feeder watchers included Don & Dianne Baker, Norman & Edith Baker, Adam & Rosalind Brown, Jim Cornett, Warren & Barbara Coughlin, Dwight & Faye Curkener, Roland & Colleen Elliott, Jack & Arlene Elves, Verne Gilbertson, Richard Hutchings, Lawrence & Elizabeth Kelly, Richard & Faye Kusnick, Don & Donna Leech, Kathy McKiernan, John Montgomery, Dave & Christine Neale, Richard Rounds, Betty Stewart, Evelyn Thompson and Bud & Jean White.
If you are interested in participating in next year’s count either as a field participant or feeder watcher give Cal a call at 727-2239. It’s not just about counting birds. Data from Christmas Bird Counts such as Brandon’s are at the heart of hundreds of peer reviewed scientific studies and help inform decisions by wildlife managers across Canada. The many decades of data not only identify birds in need of conservation action, but also reveal success stories. Learn more about the Christmas Bird Count at birdscanada.org/volunteer/cbc
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition January 23, 2014