Christmas Bird Counts – Citizen Science in Action

Winter is a great time to see waterfowl but there are also a great number of other birds to be seen. In fact, quite a surprising number. The recent Penticton and Vaseux Lake Christmas Bird Counts (December 14 and 21) recorded over 100 species of birds.

Mind you there were about 60 people out looking and even so some birds were seen only once. So the chances of going out and seeing 100 species in one day in winter are low. Nevertheless birding in the winter can be very rewarding.

However, what gets most birders excited is seeing even one rare bird as opposed to seeing 20 or 30 more common birds. Both the Penticton and Vaseux counts turned up their share of rare birds – some rare for the Okanagan at any time, others rare for this time of year. Amongst the birds that are rare for any time of year in the Okanagan were Greater-white fronted Goose, Snow Goose, Eurasian Wigeon, Pacific Loon and Wild Turkey. Some others that are generally seen only at other times of the year included Wood Duck and Yellow-rumped Warbler. Just how rare are some of these birds? Two examples are the Snow Goose – from 1974 until now it has been seen at Christmas only twice before - and the Wild Turkey – seen only once previous to this year! Chances of any of us seeing the Turkey are very slim but seeing the Snow Goose (if it is still around) is more likely as it stands out in a crowd – generally a crowd of Canada Geese. Just look for the all white goose!

From its humble beginnings in 1900 in 25 different cities across the USA and Canada the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) has grown to over 2100 Counts in North America and Latin America with 371 of those being in Canada. Penticton’s first count took place in 1958 and has been carried out continuously ever since. CBC’s are an excellent example of Citizen science – the data collected by many ordinary birders is extremely useful for researchers and conservation biologists to study the long-term status of bird populations in North America. The great thing is that the Counts have been taking place over long periods of time and at the same time of year – so while the information from any one year is not critically important, when looked at over many years we can see important trends and see how birds are being affected.

From this long-term stream of data we see some frightening population declines – Evening Grosbeaks down 78%, Northern Pintail down 77% and Rufous Hummingbird down 58% - based on continent wide surveys since 1967. These are only a few of the birds in precipitous decline in North America. CBC data also however provide us with information about changing distribution patterns of some birds. As an example, neither Tundra nor Trumpeter swans were seen in this area prior to the mid-1990s and now they are seen every year. For your own view of these majestic birds check out the Okanagan Lakefront just east of the Art Gallery or Skaha Lake in the vicinity of Kaleden.

The South Okangan Naturalist Club meets this month on Thursday, January 22nd at 7:30 PM in the Penticton United Church. This month’s speaker is Jim Mottishaw of the BC Forest Service and the topic is: Wildfire and prescribed burns- The role of Fire in Forest Ecosystems. All are welcome.
Nature Wise