‘Great annual snapshot:’ Bird numbers down in Waterton bird count after wildfire

WATERTON, Alta. — A Parks Canada official says a powerful wildfire that shut down Waterton Lakes National Park late last summer will inevitably change the species of birds in the area.

The blaze began from a lightning strike in British Columbia but eventually shut down the park in the deep corner of southwest Alberta for weeks. The fire covered more than 360 square kilometres — roughly about one-third of the park.

Dianne Pachal, who co-ordinates the annual bird count at Waterton, said birders recorded a total of 167 individual birds from 21 species on Dec. 15. That’s well below the 40-year average of 27 species and 493 birds.

A number of possible reasons for the drop include an extremely high wind on the day of the count — which would make it more difficult to find the birds — and some areas of the park hit by the fire being closed to the public, she said.

But it’s undeniable that the balance of species at Waterton will be affected by last year’s fire, Pachal said

“The forest was burned there, and who knows which species are remaining and what new ones are there?” Pachal asked.

“With a forest fire, often we see the cavity-nesting birds increase and insect-eating birds, particularly woodpeckers, follow a lot of species of insects that come in immediately following a fire.”

Pachal said ecosystems evolve and some species initially found immediately after a fire will move on once the forest begins to mature.

“So you won’t see as many woodpeckers — we would expect to see more of those now we have had a major fire here.”

There are 255 different species recorded in Waterton, said Pachal, who added most are likely to be still around but have relocated to different parts of the park.

The bird count is a 40-year tradition in which members of the public conduct a tally of birds and their species. Annual counts are done across North America between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. They’re co-ordinated by Bird Studies Canada in conjunction with the National Audubon Society, which began the practice in 1900.

“It provides us with a great annual snapshot of what’s happening with the birds in the park.”.

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