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Christmas Bird Count

January 7, 2010

Yes, we still call it the Christmas Bird Count. Hypersensitive grinches haven’t insisted that we change it to the Holiday Count or the Winter Solstice Count. Now if someone were to propose the Festivus Bird Count (a la Seinfeld), I might go for the name change.

The highlight of our count is the Tally Dinner. After eight or nine hours staggering around in the cold, it can be quite festive. Once the potluck dinner is done, we get down to the serious and the fun part of the count. The tallying up of the day’s finds.

Our compiler, Rudolf Koes, reminds us of the procedures and adds: “Remember this is not a competition.” We all smile and think: Well, it is and it isn’t.”

As captain of Zone 7 (St. Vital, a southern suburb), I know that my team is competing with its past. Can we get all the birds we’re “supposed to get” in our area and in the expected numbers? Probably not.

Zone 7 used to be the best winter birding territory in the city. Suburban sprawl ruined it. Open grasslands and thick groves of oak and aspen have been bulldozed away and replaced by huge houses on tiny, treeless lots. No chance any more for grouse, partridge or snowy owls. When the sugar beet factory closed, it stopped expelling warm water into the Red River. No more open water means no more ducks or geese. And the best bird feeders in the zone have passed on. One place could almost guarantee a handful of over-wintering birds: robins, mourning doves, grackles, etc., and one or two rarities.

We used to get between 20 and 25 species on count day in Zone 7. Now we get around 15. This year, “mild” weather, no wind, we got 16. Not bad.

So we have to content ourselves with a friendly rivalry with other zones. If Zone 6 gets 76 chickadees, I want our number to be at least 77. Etc.

But mainly I want our zone to have the most surprising bird in the city. After the birds on the “A” list (birds that have appeared on over 90% of the counts) and then the “B” list (birds that show up irregularly and in small numbers) are tallied, every zone captain has to name the rare bird(s) documented in his/her area. This is a closely kept secret, revealed with maximum dramatic impact. Once a rarity is announced, all other zones are asked if they had the same bird. This year our surprise birds were White-throated Sparrow (many others elsewhere), goldfinches (we had 36; 12 others seen), and a Red-bellied Woodpecker (one seen elsewhere). Enjoyable results but not outstanding.

Overall, Winnipeg had 46 species, an average year. Highlights were two birds seen for the first time ever on the count: a Lincoln’s Sparrow and a Carolina Wren. Three Sharp-tailed Grouse showed up, the first sightings in many years. There were record numbers of Red-breasted Nuthatches (114, we had 21), White-throated Sparrows (32), Grackles (26), and Rough-legged Hawks (10). We all felt good about a cold day’s work.

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