A male and female purple finch visit columnist and longtime Christmas bird count volunteer Sandy McRuer’s birdfeeder a few winters ago.

A male and female purple finch visit columnist and longtime Christmas bird count volunteer Sandy McRuer’s birdfeeder a few winters ago.

PAC RIM ACTIVE: Reflections on the annual bird count

Sandy McRuer presents reflections on the Christmas Bird Count in Port Alberni.

Wow! I just counted them up. Until this year, I had conducted the Christmas Bird Count in Port Alberni for 28 years! And now finally, someone else is doing it. Annette Bailey did a great job organizing and compiling the results.

The next step will be to enter the data into the North American database. I’m very glad the tradition is carrying on.

There have been big changes in how the counting is done from the time it started in 1900. The count started more than 100 years ago as an alternative to the Christmas Side Hunt. For this hunt, teams were formed and whoever brought in the biggest pile of birds and animals won.

Over the years the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count has grown and spread from the original 27 people in 25 communities across North America. Toronto and Scotch Lake, New Brunswick, were among the original counts. Now counts are spread across the western hemisphere.

This year counts were held in 11 communities on Vancouver Island with around 500 participants on average. Some of these participants help out in more than one count and some in several counts.

This year in Port Alberni, we had perhaps the strongest group of counters we have ever had thanks to a number of new residents in the community who are pretty knowledgeable birders. They contributed significantly to the day. Twenty-three of us were in the field, and 30 people counted birds at their feeders.

Eighty species were identified. The biggest number was for Northwestern Crows and Dark-eyed Juncos. After that, Mallards and Pine Siskins were the next. But it was a cold day with a few snow flurries that impaired visibility at times. This contributed to the low total number of birds counted this year compared to other years: only 8,500 compared to the average of around 12,000.

Highlights included a Brandt’s Cormorant, Virginia Rail, and most especially, Harris’s Sparrow. This little sparrow has been coming to Penny Hall’s feeder in Cherry Creek for more than two months. It should be in Texas and Oklahoma at this time of year.

The first count here in 1988 was when people were invited to meet at Harbour Quay, and we dispersed from there in different directions. There were no feeders counted. And the data was not sent to the Audubon Society until 1993. In 1997, we started including feeder counters. At that time we were still mailing all the count information to the Audubon Society in Washington. The conversion to sending it over the Internet didn’t happen until 1999.

Some of the kinds of birds we counted were also different. For instance we counted an average of 60 Western Grebes until 2000. Then the population in the Alberni Inlet and elsewhere crashed. Since then the average is eight. And for the last few years we had none. This year it’s four.

On land, we have experienced the disappearance of Brewer’s Blackbirds from 1999 to none this year. On the other hand in the last five years the Anna’s Hummingbirds have exploded from zero to a record 41 this year. And the Eurasian Collared-dove has also exploded onto the scene. From a small population introduced in the Bahamas it has colonized Florida and spread across North America, arriving in Port Alberni about 2011. This year there was a record 117 of them recorded.

Despite no longer compiling the Christmas Bird Count, my eccentric passion for birds has not diminished. You will still see me in various locations like the Somass Estuary, and Harbour Quay with all my gear and headphones. It’s a great pastime.

For me it’s like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to find.  It’s also like a giant scavenger hunt. And that scavenger hunt can take a person to all corners of the world and allow you to witness incredible birds, animals, and scenery. It also allows you to meet wonderful people in a a wonderful collegial atmosphere. You should try it some time.

Are you interested in birding? Sandy McRuer will host Friday Birding outings every Friday at 12:30 p.m. starting at Victoria Quay, for a two- to three-hour outing. Bring binoculars.