Neither people nor birds were much up for this year’s Christmas Bird Count in freezing weather and white-out conditions.
Count compiler Judy Boyd, of the Red Deer River Naturalists, said a -34 Celsius windchill on count day, Dec. 18, reduced the number of people willing to go out and count birds.
Even the waterfowl and songbirds were hunkering down and not very visible: “The birds were hiding,” added Boyd, who noted there was a high of -28 Celsius that day.
Usually, about 90 Red Deer area residents register to do the annual winter count, but “the numbers will be lower, it was such lousy day and people couldn’t get out on a lot of the roads because of the (snow) drifts,” Boyd added.
One woman reported getting her car stuck twice that day, while another counter told her was “plowing through” and not stopping her vehicle to avoid getting stranded.
While all the results are not yet tallied, Boyd has already noticed some interesting observations from the sheets received so far.
“A number of American goldfinches were seen around Rocky Mountain House and usually they all leave by now,” she said.
And, for the first time ever, counters also observed 194 horned larks, birds that usually aren’t seen down in this area until the end of January.
That more species are arriving earlier could be a sign of climate change, but Boyd notes conclusions can’t be drawn from year-over-year differences in the numbers. If American goldfinches and horned larks start being routinely observed in the Christmas count over the next decade, then scientists will attempt to find out why their migration pattern is changing.
Conversely, Boyd said scientists are also investigating why some species that used to be plentiful in the Red Deer area are now incredibly rare.
For instance, hundreds of evening grosbeaks were observed at local feeders in the mid-1990s, when Boyd first started doing the Christmas Bird Count. Now she said evening grosbeaks are almost “non-existent” in the region.
Similarly, once-abundant barn swallows are now considered a threatened species. Their serious decline could be due to more pesticides being used to kill bugs, which decreases their main food source, said Boyd.
The Christmas Bird Count is a global event that was started in 1900 and is North America’s longest-running citizen science project. People in more than 2,000 locations throughout the Western Hemisphere participate each year.
The Christmas Bird Count was the brain child of ornithologist Frank Chapman, who was dismayed that an annual competitive hunt was done on Christmas Day, resulting in the killing of hundreds of birds and mammals.
He introduced the bird census as a new holiday tradition, and it has long since replaced the hunt.