— by George Sirk
On December 18, 2022, the Cortes Museum held its annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) for Cortes. Included in the count is also the “count week” (CW) with three days on either side of the actual CBC date. The CW is valuable as finding all the species that reside on Cortes on one day is difficult, if not impossible. This year, we recorded 54 species and a further 6 in the CW.
Thirty-three observers took part in the 2022 count. Twenty-six were out on “the” day and seven more contributed data during the CW from home observations.
To have 33 people donate their time to count birds in a population of around 1000 people is remarkable. We also attracted two birders from Quadra! Quadra with a population five times ours, doesn’t conduct a CBC, and here we are attracting birders like juncos to a feeder. It shows that we are very keen here to observe and record birds regardless of the weather.
And speaking of the weather, it was a brisk day with a serious, fierce NW wind and temperatures hovering at negative five degree Celsius. These conditions chilled observers to the bone for sure, and made observations along western coastlines, like Smelt Bay and Manson’s, a challenge. Seabirds avoided the waves and took shelter on the eastern side of Cortes, much of it hard to reach on foot. The data collected reflects the absence or low numbers of many birds due to the weather. Not just on the sea, but in the forests. An example is the low numbers of woodpeckers recorded this year.
Last year’s deep freeze in January and February was hard on bird populations. Species that disappeared include Hutton’s Vireo and Pine Siskin. The latter’s population went from an average of 150 to zero. These finches swirl around like giant flocks of super large bees with spiralling metallic calls. They also are part of a group of birds like crossbills whose population is cyclic. So perhaps the deep freeze is not to blame but should be considered as these small birds have small body mass and may suffer from prolonged deep cold. The Hutton’s Vireo is at the northern limit of its range on the west coast of North America and will have to recolonize in the future.
So the commonest bird on Cortes? The junco! Those small black-headed seed gobblers with the white outer tail flashes. This year we recorded 717 of them: a new record. Almost more than all the sea ducks put together.
The rarest? Well, on count day it would have to go to the Greater Yellowlegs. Fun name, huh? It’s a large sandpiper with stilt-like, yellow (duh) legs. It hung around Whaletown Bay until the fabled polar vortex shifted its boundary down two days later and froze the bay up. During the whole count week the rarest, leaving the yellowlegs mired in second place, would be the Northern Shrike that posed for Ann Dewar at her back yard.
Northern Shrike, a super rare bird, is grey with black and white on the wings and towhee sized and a Lone Ranger black mask. A new record for the Cortes CBC. I’ve never seen it in my 50 years birding here. It’s in the Cortes checklist as very rare migrant with a couple of sightings. It perches horizontally on tall bushes or fence wire and hunts small birds and mammals. Not a member of the raptor (hawk, owls etc.) family but a sweet dickey bird that has a taste for blood. Even has a hooked bill like a hawk. It likes to skewer its prey on thorns and barbed wire when it has too much food, or as in the case of the courting male, to show off its prowess to the potential mate. It nests way up in Alaska and northern Canada.
Overall, it was a very successful count. We squeezed it in before the weather collapsed into a Baffin Island experience, whew. We recorded 54 species, the lowest ever with the average around 70. The total number of individuals was 2427 (with close to one-third JUNCOS!!) The highest overall numbers were in 2020 when we got 82 species and 4093 individuals. The weather then was calm, sunny and a balmy one degree Celsius. Weather does make a difference.
So that’s a synopsis of the count. For more details you can go to the Cortes Museum website (www.cortesmuseum.com/bird-counting) including a summary of past years. I want to thank everyone who took part and got bitten by the birding bug and fearlessly donned their best winter clothes, and to the Cortes Museum for organizing and pointing all of us in the right direction and giving us a warm place to have lunch! And to Gina for the hours of organizing the count and compilation that it takes to assemble the numerous data entries. And of course to those two birders who came from abroad to join the CBC from Quadra!
Remember to keep your hummingbird feeders thawed and well supplied! And throw a few seeds out for those massing juncos!
— George Sirk