A few feathered surprises were spotted, and a whole lot of Canada geese, during the annual central Alberta Christmas bird count on Dec. 22.
Judy Boyd, local naturalist with Red Deer River Naturalists, said she saw 935 geese on Red Deer River near River Bend perimeter trail, with the open water due to mild weather.
“This year at the Dickson Dam, we had thousands of geese and ducks for the Christmas bird count. It was hard to count,” Boyd said.
“There was one year, 2002, we had 6,937 geese. Last year, we had 137. In 2016, we had one. Those things really fluctuate because of the weather conditions.”
She said the annual Christmas bird count is the oldest citizen science count in the world. It was started in 1905 in New York by Frank Chapman.
“At that point in time, everyone went out at Christmas time and shot as many birds as they could shoot.
“He didn’t like that, so he started going out just counting the birds instead of shooting them. It’s now worldwide. Everyone does it on the same day, so it gives a snapshot of what’s in your area at that time of the year.”
The information from the local bird count was still be gathered from participants, but one bird watcher saw a brown thrasher that was regularly visiting his bird feeder and did not appear injured, she said.
“He should have migrated away from here. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a brown thrasher in Red Deer in the spring, let alone in winter.”
She said a robin was also seen. Thankfully, the number of bird feeders around make it possible for uncommon winter birds to survive in the cold. Feeders also make it easier to find birds.
Other notable species that Boyd spotted included a prairie falcon near Nova Chemicals, as well as a rough-legged hawk, which is an Arctic bird, and a northern drake at Dry Island Buffalo Jump.
A few days prior to the count, she saw a gyrfalcon, another Arctic bird, at Dickson Dam.
She said conclusions shouldn’t be drawn when unusual birds are spotted, or common birds are missing, during a count. Trends can only be identified over time.
“It used to be 20 years ago, we never had northern flickers that overwintered, and now they’re regular birds in the winter time.”
She said last year, a sighting of rusty black birds was confirmed, which was unusual.
“Rusty black birds are threatened. I haven’t seen a rusty blackbird in probably 15 or 20 years. To see nine of them is pretty spectacular.”
During the 2019 year-round central Alberta bird species count, organized by Red Deer River Naturalists, a total of 195 species were identified.