SpruceRoots Magazine - February 2002

SpruceRoots Magazine - February 2002

Bunkered with Binos in a South-East Wind

- an interview with the birdman

Masset resident, Peter Hamel, is one of Canada’s top birders and holds the record for seeing the most bird species in Canada in a single year. When he first came to Haida Gwaii on sabbatical in 1982 he organized a Christmas Bird Count. The yearly counts have been going on ever since. Peter now lives in Masset and during a recently delayed ferry trip home aboard BC Ferries’ Queen of Prince Rupert we had a chance to talk about birds…

How did your interest in birding develop?

As a kid growing up in Hamilton, Ontario in the 1950’s I was lucky to live in a hot-spot for bird-watching with a number of other junior birders. We were lucky to have George North as our mentor. He was recognized by many Canadian and US ornithologists as one of North America’s leading field ornithologist and I learned bird identification from him. He was a challenging teacher who grilled me on any unusual bird species I found. I had to describe them exactly or he wouldn’t consider my record. Before every Christmas Bird Count in Hamilton, George would cover the ground looking for any lingering birds that should have migrated south. If I covered an area where George had seen a bird a day or so earlier and I couldn’t find it, I had to give a thorough account to him as to why not! He was a generous teacher and wonderful mentor to me and many other birders. I would never have developed my interest in birding to the extent I have without George’s love of bird watching and his demanding thoroughness.

How were the Christmas Bird Counts back then?

Then as now, there was great rivalry among the bird watching fraternity and between cities. Part of the fun and challenge was to find more species than other centres, especially Toronto. The Count has come a long way since those heady days. Nowadays, as well as being a fun experience which anyone can enjoy, it also contributes to the scientific knowledge of bird populations and distribution at the beginning of the winter period.

When did the Christmas Bird Count start?

This past one was the 102nd in North America and our 20th on Haida Gwaii. RM Stewart did the very first one here in the mid-1940s and Adrian Dorst (formerly from Hamilton!) conducted another one in 1971. When I arrived in Masset in 1982, I discovered it was not a regular part of the winter season. I missed it, for I have long looked at the Count as part of the Christmas celebrations. The growing awareness and appreciation of natural history in the 1960’s and 70’s enhanced participation North America-wide and beyond. For instance, in 1900, when the first continental Count took place there were only 27 participants. Now we are part of 50,000 volunteers! It’s the longest running volunteer-based bird census in the world and is a valuable tool in monitoring the status of early winter bird populations as well as the general health of the environment. Now, with 20 years of data behind us, we can see some general patterns. This despite the fact that the weather is the dominant force that skews the data, especially when surveys are done in extreme conditions (which only happens every year!).

What did you mean by the Count being a celebration of Christmas?

You don’t have to be an expert to participate and it’s a very rewarding thing to be part of. It’s a community event. You can connect with families and friends from all over the Islands as they walk the streets and cover the shorelines and woodlands surrounding our communities in a shared experience. We try to make connections with people throughout the Islands to improve our knowledge of where birds can be found. We are part of the human community going out together and sharing the experience. It is also a way of connecting with those who receive endless pleasure feeding birds. It was Francis of Assisi back in the 13th century who began a custom of feeding birds and other animals at Christmas. He went so far as to ask city officials to pass a law requiring all households to do so. I’m hoping that the new Nature Field Centre in the Delkatla Wildlife Sanctuary will be a major force for enhancing our appreciation and understanding of the natural world around us. We live in it all the time and it’s great to get to know it a little better every year.

Have you found any particular general birding patterns here over the years?

We are far enough offshore on the Islands to have fewer species, although the ones that are here are more widespread. We tend to see Golden-crowned Kinglets and Chestnut-backed Chickadees widely distributed in brush and forest. Some land birds are dependent on mature forests and rely more heavily on larger trees. Those include Hairy Wood-peckers, Brown Creepers, Red-breasted Nuthatches and of course, the Northern Saw-whet Owl. A very rare and local bird on-Island is the Northern Goshawk. It needs extremely large tracts of mature forest habitat in order to survive, up to 2400 hectares per family. In the non-breeding season they even show up in our communities. We have five records in the twenty years we’ve been doing the Count. Birdwatchers from the mainland are surprised to learn that we record very few Nuthatches, far fewer than Brown Creepers, meaning that the Nuthatches on the mainland are more common and widespread and also come to feeders which doesn’t appear to be the case here. Feeders also make a difference to some species that over winter here. It’s an easier way to record some species that are hard to find in their natural habitat. Golden-crowned and White-crowned Sparrows, once thought to be very rare on-Island are now recorded yearly at feeders.

Also of interest is the fact that under severe weather conditions we can survey bird populations over a far greater area. In heavy southeast storms at Sandspit waterfowl head for the shelter of Shingle Bay. One year we counted over 700 Harlequin Ducks there. You, Margo, and others had observed this phenomenon years earlier, and we were, in a way, fortunate that the 55-knot winds blew on CBC (Christmas Bird Count) day and we were able to record them. We were probably seeing a winter population that may stretch to Grey Bay and beyond.

On another occasion at Rose Spit, when it was blowing southeast 65 knots and raining heavily, from our ‘bunker’ in the logs we counted over 22,000 Long-tailed Ducks that were flying past and feeding. We counted for over three hours. Those birds had, because of the violent weather, been swept out of Hecate Strait and Dixon Entrance and into the shelter of the Spit. Even ocean-going birds find it difficult to withstand severe weather. It appears that the small fish and other marine invertebrates that they feed on are also chased out of certain areas and into shelter by storms.

So how do the Islands rate overall for wintering populations?

We’ve now counted over 150 species on the 77 counts conducted here since 1982. A number of species once thought very rare in early winter are actually regular, including Yellow-billed Loons, very a rare species in all of North America. Some Sooty Shearwaters and Short-tailed Shearwaters that breed in the southern hemisphere, including southern Australia, also show up. Gadwall were not common when we started and we see upwards of 50 now. Black-bellied Plovers, Least Sandpipers, Greater Yellowlegs and Long-billed Dowitchers are recorded almost yearly. We thought that these birds migrated further south in winter, but are learning that they also winter here.

How do the Counts relate to the overall populations of birds in North America?

Over time we are beginning to see what our relationships are to species on the Pacific Coast, from the Aleutian Islands and shoreline of the Gulf of Alaska as far south as California. It is interesting that a number of species we see, in fact, have a very broad winter range, from the western coast of Alaska to California. We never knew that before we undertook the Counts.

Does anything really stand out?

As is to be expected, Haida Gwaii plays a much greater role in the support of water-associated birds. We have significant numbers of murres, murrelets, auklets, grebes and cormorants as well as loons, duck species and shearwaters. We don’t see as many land-birds here compared to other areas on the British Columbia coast with at least one exception. The Brambling! This is a beautiful Asian finch that rarely nests in Western Alaska and sometimes migrates on this side of the Pacific. John and Jennifer Davies discovered the first for Canada at their feeder in Tlell on February 7, 1971. Since then, we have more Brambling records (5) on the Island Christmas Bird Counts than anywhere else south of Alaska, you might say we are the Brambling capital of Canada! So keep your eyes on the lookout for a small exotic-looking finch with a orange-buff breast, white patch at the base of the tail and broad orange wing-bars.

Are the Christmas Bird Counts as competitive now as they were in the 1950’s in Hamilton?

Yes. There is definitely rivalry between various communities in the lower mainland and Vancouver Island. The biggest rivalries are between Victoria, Vancouver, White Rock and Ladner. Those communities see up to 150 species, while our highest island-wide total, including all of the Counts was 103 species, which is pretty fantastic given our northern latitudes. The Counts have to be done between 16th December and 4th January every year. I regret that we haven’t managed to do one in Tlell, we simply run out of time during the Christmas season.

Are the Counts relevant in the scientific world?

Oh yes! As an example of assessing North America wintering bird populations an article recently appeared in Changes in the Winter Distribution and Abundance of Rock Sandpipers in North America. Both the Skidegate Inlet and Masset Christmas Bird Count data were used in that paper. In the past 20 years we have built up a very significant database whereby we can begin to interpret the Island’s position in the greater scheme of things. Many more articles have been written using the National CBC data and we are certainly contributing a major body of knowledge to the understanding of birds. Because the National Audubon Society publishes all the Counts we can compare how we fare with other places on the coast and elsewhere in North America. Birds spend the winter at home and the Islands are home to an amazing variety of birds.

Thanks Peter! Now what?

Well! The ferry is on the move! I’m going out on deck to say hello to my buddies—the birds!

On the trip of 4th February 2002, three or four freak waves hit the ferry broadside. For a scary moment it seemed as though we would roll completely over. Peter was outside and grabbed on to one of the lockers on deck. He was looking almost straight down to the steel sides of the ferry and the ocean beyond and threw his back out holding on at an awkward angle!! I was in the cafeteria writing notes when chairs and crockery, my notebook and binoculars plunged across the room. We survived. Birding is always an adventure with risks!

You can look at Christmas Bird Counts data North America wide from 1900 to the present at www.audubon.org or www.birdsource.org and follow the links to Christmas Bird Count.

SpruceRoots Magazine - February 2002