If you notice a lot of people looking at your yard with binoculars on Christmas week, don’t worry — they are only looking for birds.
The Westman Naturalists are holding their 41st annual Christmas Bird Count on Dec. 19, with COVID protocols in place. Starting at the corner of 18th Street and Victoria Avenue, covering a 12-kilometre radius, groups of people on foot and homeowners with yard feeders will be out searching for birds and counting what they see to report to the society for data collection.
Organizer Gillian Richards said the society was able to run the count successfully last year with restrictions and is looking forward to another year of people enjoying nature in the city and surrounding rural areas. Participants will be assigned areas to survey and simply count as many birds they see, noting everything from common birds to more unusual or rare species.
"We are recruiting more people with yard feeders because of COVID, but anyone who wants to go out in what we call field parties is welcome to do so," Richards said.
A few changes are still in place. There won’t be any large carpooling or groups. People can still go out and search, but new people are often paired with an experienced counter, which right now is a bit difficult with COVID, she explained.
The bird count is a social event, as well as an opportunity for people to discover what kind of bird species are in the area. People are given a suggested maximum number of birds they can count, or they can go for as long as they wish. They write down what they sighted, when and where.
Participants can also count birds three days before and three days after Dec. 19 for data collection, but those will be counted as off-day sightings.
Every year brings a few surprises. Richards said last year alone they had multiple sightings of rough-legged hawks, which nest in the Arctic. That’s odd for this time of year, since they tend to migrate south during the winter, Richards said. Also sighted were merlins — another migratory bird that should be further south this time of year. Also sighted were house finches, not normally seen in the area, but are now known to nest here.
A feeder counter reported a red-bellied woodpecker as well.
Richards added they are seeing a lot more eagles. Whenv she arrived in the early ’80s, it was unheard of to see eagles during the bird count. Now they are often sighted along parts of the river.
Sightings like this are becoming more common, she said, as climate changes and birds shift their migration patterns. The count helps track where they are going and possibly new territories.
This runs in conjunction with the Manitoba Christmas Bird Count and the Audubon Society’s International Christmas Bird Count covering most of North America. The annual tradition started in the United States more than 100 years ago and moved north to cover Canada.
Last year’s count attracted 78 people, with 33 searching on foot.
To get involved, contact the Westman Naturalists at firstname.lastname@example.org. They can also be reached via their Facebook page and website, westman-naturalists.github.io/
Participants are not required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.