Yellowknife's Christmas bird count yields surprises despite low turnout

Yellowknife's bird enthusiasts saw more than 1,000 birds at this year's Christmas bird count, held Saturday. Granted, most were ravens, but counters were also treated to white-winged crossbills and pine grosbeaks.

Nine people brave –30 C weather; see ‘invasion’ of white-winged crossbills

Christmas bird counter Miki Ehrlich checks the trees around Yellowknife's Niven Trail for birds. (Submitted by Shannon Moore)

Bob Bromley says it could have been the frigid weather or more people on holiday travel, but only nine people showed up for this year's Christmas bird count in Yellowknife on Saturday.

Usually, he said, almost 30 people bring their binoculars out to spy the city's feathered friends.

Bromley has been the count's compiler since the event first came to the city in 1984, and says this year's event was the coldest he's seen in a long time.

But even if the human turnout was low, the birds did not disappoint, according to Bromley.

The white-winged crossbill was a highlight of the bird count. Compiler Bob Bromley says there has been a real influx of these birds in recent years. (Submitted by Cynthia Barry)

"The biggest thing was the white-winged crossbills which are a colourful bird," he said. "Every group saw white-winged crossbills. And that's never happened before, so there's been a real influx — or invasion — of those birds."

White-winged crossbills are bright birds. The males are red with white bars on their wings and black markings. The females and young tend to be more of an orange or golden hue, according to Bromley.

They sit at the tops of spruce trees and use their specialized beaks — which are crossed — to pry open the spruce cones in search of seeds.

"When you're walking around town and you see a spruce tree with a bunch of cones at the bottom, it can either be squirrels or white-winged crossbills," he said. "And this year — crossbills are a real possibility."

Bromley pointed to another highlight — the pine grosbeak. They tend to be a bright fuchsia and sit in birch trees, creating a nice effect on white winter days.

"[When they're] sitting in the birch trees it's almost as if the trees are decorated," he said.

No birds of prey, no woodpeckers, no problem

This year's bird count was a little unusual, according to Bromley, in that nobody recorded a sighting of any birds of prey or woodpeckers.

Last year, three woodpecker species were recorded in the count, for instance. But he said just because they weren't counted, doesn't mean they aren't here.

"You can't put too much weight on these things when you have a small number of observers because we weren't able to cover nearly the amount of area we would be able to cover with three times as many people," he said.

Marcus Jackson captured some Bohemian waxwings during the Christmas bird count. (Submitted by Marcus Jackson)

Yellowknife's Christmas bird count is hosted by Ecology North as part of the Audubon Society's annual event across the Americas. This year marked the Audubon Society's 118th count.

Bromley says Yellowknifers looking to get into birdwatching don't need to look far, because birds are all over the city. He pointed specifically to mature stands of spruce trees, willows, alders and birches as places that tend to attract birds.

Christmas bird count complete results:

Common raven – 1,949

Grey jay or whisky jack – 5

Willow ptarmigan – 76

Common redpoll – 76*

Hoary redpoll – 82*

House sparrow – 19

Boreal chickadee – 1

White-winged crossbills – 39

Black-billed magpies – 61

Pine grosbeak – 3

Sharp-tailed grouse – 7

Bohemian waxwing – 10

*The common and hoary redpoll are similar in appearance and the group saw 70 they weren't able to identify