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Birdwatchers gather in Waterton to spot signs of recovery after devastating wildfire

Avid birdwatchers gathered in Waterton Lakes National Park earlier this month to discover how many of their feathered friends returned to the park following a devastating wildfire that swept through the area in September.

Volunteers joined 41st annual bird count to see which species have returned

Birdwatchers gathered in Waterton on Dec. 15, 2017 for the annual Christmas Bird Count. (Mario De Ciccio/CBC)

Avid birdwatchers gathered in Waterton Lakes National Park earlier this month to discover how many of their feathered friends returned to the park following a devastating wildfire that swept through the area in September.

The 41st Annual Waterton Christmas Bird Count is part of one of the longest running citizen-science projects in Canada.

"For the park, it's a snapshot of what's happening with bird populations from year to year. When you have that many years of data, you get a sense of what's going on," said Dianne Pachal, volunteer coordinator for the count and public outreach education officer for the park.

Nearly 70 per cent of the forested area in Waterton Lakes National Park was destroyed by the Kenow Wildfire in September. (Mario De Ciccio/CBC)

The tradition of Christmas bird counts began in Canada in 1900, and now happen in 2,000 locations in the Western Hemisphere, according to Bird Studies Canada. 

Thirty-seven different bird species reside in the park year-round, Pachal said. 

On Dec. 15, volunteers spread out through various parts of the park to record the different species of birds seen, and how many.

Last year's count turned up 17 different species.

Park staff and volunteers were looking forward to seeing the first signs of recovery after the Kenow Fire.

Deer, along with bears, elk and moose, were killed by the Kenow Wildfire in Waterton, but wildlife — like the two picture here — are returning to the region. (Mario De Ciccio/CBC)

Dennis Madsen, resource conservation manager for Waterton Lakes National Park, said this fire was intense, blasting out embers that were carried ahead by the wind, igniting dry grass and likely trapping some wildlife that would have been surrounded by flames on both sides.

"Certainly in this fire we would have lost some animals," said Madsen.

"Ordinarily, fires don't move as quickly as this fire did. It covered over 20 kilometres in just over four hours."

Some areas of the park are still closed — birdwatchers were restricted from delving too deep into the forest, due to safety hazards.

Pat Lucas of the Crowsnest Conservation Society is looking forward to seeing what bird species return to the Waterton area in spring and summer. (Mario De Ciccio/CBC)

But, fires are part of the natural life cycle of a forest, and staff have already seen some animals returning to the area.

"It's not a bad thing," Madsen said. 

"In fact, it's essential for different species on the landscape, it creates diversity, so you get more species, more habitats for different kinds of animals. It's a natural process."

Some of the first birds that are likely to return to the area are cavity nesters, like woodpeckers, who tuck away in small holes created by the blaze and dine on insects that crop up as new growth starts to take hold.

Raptors, like hawks and eagles, also benefit, preying on small birds that can't find cover as the shrubbery has burned away.

Wildlife is returning to Waterton Lakes National Park after a wildfire swept through the area in September. (Mario De Ciccio/CBC)

Volunteer Pat Lucas of the Crowsnest Conservation Society said it's exciting to see how the ecosystem changes over the years as birds move back in after a fire.

"Everything will adapt and it will come back," she said.

The count's results will likely be released in early 2018.

With files from Mario de Ciccio

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