Out There: Winter birds dug out

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The long-eared owl is a rare participant in Wynndel's winter nightlife.

The long-eared owl is a rare participant in Wynndel's winter nightlife.

They did just that. They dug out resident winter birds, 36 bird spotters looking everywhere around the Creston Valley. Some even did a little extra digging. Some searched from vehicles, others on foot and one area was even covered on skis. Another large group of observers spent the day recording feathered visitors at bird feeders.

One observer landed a long-eared owl for the count driving around at night near Wynndel on the day of the count. By some rare coincidence, presumably, the same owl got itself on camera at the same location the next morning. Some extra digging did pay off!

Long-eared owls are a rare find here in winter, which is to be expected as the Kootenays border the northern extremity of their winter range. I haven’t seen one here but have heard them give their desperate domestic cat shriek.

The “official” Creston Christmas Bird Count is 12 years old; however, unofficial winter bird counts were done as far back as 1981. Now, coverage of the valley is much more complete with many more participants than in the early years. Bird spotters have discovered for themselves, as one participant put it, “one big treasure chest” of birds — a world of Creston birds. I overheard another tell of someone who maintained a bird feeder for 40 years and “calls each bird by name”.

The Dec. 27 bird count produced a slightly lower number of birds than seen in 2009; however, birds observed at feeders totalled more than in 2009. Birds don’t generally come out to be counted, sort of like the way people respond to a census. A few birds, like inquisitive chickadees, can be called by little tweets or by “pishing”, a sound they seem to associate with owls. These sounds can also turn up a weasel. Spotting birds at any time of year is almost always about being there at the right time and place. So, it pays off to revisit the same haunts. Some birds seen in 2009 were absent from this year’s list and a few new ones were seen in the 2010 count. A short-eared owl, cedar waxwing, Clark’s nutcracker and a mountain chickadee joined the long-eared owl on the 2010 list. Some birds entered on the 2009 count were golden eagle, Cooper’s hawk, northern goshawk, Say’s pheobe and spotted towhee, an unusual winter resident indeed.

Snow buntings are a delight to see but are a hit and miss sighting. Even if in small groups, they are hard to spot in the fields on the flats or in the gravelly snow along Nick’s Island South Road, along Swan Road or Duck Lake Road, where they may be seen eating bits of gravel for their digestive systems. I also remember going out in the south Canyon area and seeing one or two mountain chickadees at one particular bird feeder. They appear to migrate but do it up and down rather than north and south or east and west. They come down from the higher elevations of Mt. Thompson and other local mountains to avoid the harsher winter. In the spring, they head up to their summer haunts. So check groups of black-capped chickadees for the mountain species.

The Creston town site logged 32 species of birds at the December count and 31 at the 2009 count. Compared to some areas, that is a substantial number. The variety of berry and fruit bearing shrubs and trees around residential areas make attractive food sources and shelter for those feathered friends and also for those one or two birds that like to dine on the birds hanging around the feeders. Pygmy owls are no exception. At the end of the Christmas day portion of the count, a merlin, a small falcon, chose to eat a house sparrow in the presence of several bird spotters. Who’s checking on whom?

A large number of birds are attracted to town by the large number of bird feeders, some of which were monitored by 34 feeder observers — actually, to be honest I should say 35. It wouldn’t be fair to leave out the bobcat that was watching an out-of-town feeder from a second level deck.

More field observers are needed for the next Christmas bird count. See you on Dec. 27!

Ed McMackin is a biologist by profession but a naturalist and hiker by nature. He can be reached at 250-866-5747.