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Bird count surprises
Black-backed woodpecker, goshawk among rare finds at this year's tally

Kirsten Fenn
Northern News Services
Friday, January 6, 2017

More than two dozen people bundled in their warmest winter gear fanned out across the city on Monday to take stock of the variety of birds around Yellowknife during Ecology North's annual Christmas bird count.

NNSL photo/graphic

Jasmine Holroyd stares up at the trees along Frame Lake, where she spots a raven during Ecology North's annual Christmas bird count on Monday morning. - Kirsten Fenn/NNSL photo

Participants counted 14 species this year - the same as last - with a major upswing in willow ptarmigan, an unexpected Northern goshawk sighting and a first-time count of a black-backed woodpecker, according to Ecology North director Bob Bromley.

"That was unexpected and fairly rare, but not unknown," Bromley said, adding the group spotted the woodpecker in a yard in the Range Lake area.

The goshawk was seen on the highway toward Rae-Edzo.

Bromley said bird counters have noticed a 10-year trend among willow ptarmigan, in which their numbers seem to reach a peak after a decade before declining again. Right now, their numbers are at a high point, he said, with 238 spotted during this year's count compared to 78 in 2016.

Black-capped chickadees were noticeably absent this year, along with the sharp-tailed grouse. The pileated woodpecker, which was seen for the first time in a decade last year, was nowhere to be seen this year.

Twenty-eight bird lovers came out for the event, Bromley said, which is intended to be a fun way to get people out to appreciate the environment.

"But it has proved to be useful for monitoring changing distribution of birds associated with changes in their habitat," he said.

On the day of the official bird count, participants are sent to different locations within a 24-kilometre radius of Franklin Avenue and 50 Street, where they record how many of each bird species they spot.

The group then compiles its data at the end of the day.

Participants are asked to report whether they spot any other bird species in the three days before and after the official count, as a check on how well the group did on the official count day.

According to Bromley, more bird species have emerged around the city over the last few years, including woodpeckers. One participant on Monday said he believed he'd seen a grey owl and a hawk owl over the holidays.

Five or six species was the norm for the annual bird count when it started in Yellowknife 33 years ago, Bromley said.

Yellowknife holds the North American record for ravens and ptarmigan, according to Bromley. Participant Hugh Moloney said there is a surprising amount of bird diversity in the city if one pays attention.

"You kind of get lulled into the notion that there's only ravens, because there's so many of them," said Moloney, who has been taking part in bird counts for 15 years. "But there are lots of other birds out there if you take the time to look."

The event can also play an important role in understanding the health of the ecosystem, according to avid bird watcher Austin Marshall, who came out to the count for the first time this year.

"It adds to the knowledge of bird populations," he said. "Times are changing it seems, from everything we're hearing, and nature is being affected maybe not in a good way ... Anything we can do to help with knowledge of our little neighbours is a good thing."

Data from Yellowknife's bird count is collected by the National Audubon Society, Bromley said. The organization then uses the numbers to study the health of bird populations across the continent.

Christmas bird counts started gaining popularity in North America in the 1900s when people began moving from Christmas bird hunts to conservation activities. Yellowknife's annual event has been around since 1984, Bromley said.

"The weather was cool," he said of this year's count. "But we were very happy with the turnout."

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