Two water fowl with large beaks swimming on the surface of a body of water

A very cold but rewarding 2022 Christmas Bird Count

Cortes Island:  The results from this year’s Christmas Bird Count are finally in. As expected, the numbers are down. According to George Sirk, this was because of the weather.

George Sirk: it was really cold and it was the day of the World Cup soccer final. I was at home nice and cozy with Kim, having breakfast and coffee and watching this tremendous finale of the World Cup. I had told Gina Trzesicka at the Cortes Island Museum that I was not going to be available until about 10 o’clock because I had wanted to see this finale

Image credit: Cortes Island Museum

By the time I got down to Manson’s dock, around 10 o’clock, there they were about 8 of them, all standing like popsicles in this fierce northwest wind. Ooh, it was cold. I was dressed like when I go to Churchill, or Baffin Island. I was completely prepared. I’m Venezuelan, so the last thing I want to be is cold. So I get out of the car, with my nice cup of coffee, and there they were. They’d all been there for an hour. Brave souls they were. I was impressed that they could do that. 

It wasn’t a nice place to bird because of the wind and the waves. The general theme of the day was that all the coasts that faced west on Cortes were being beaten up by this wind. It was, they say, 16 kilometers an hour, but it was blowing pretty good. I call it more like 20 knots. 

Then what happens is all the seabirds just take off. They’re not going to go out there and work against that. They go to the eastern side of the island.   Offshore, you couldn’t see any birds. Smelt Bay was a blowout as well. So the overall picture of the count looks like, oh my goodness, it’s really down. It’s a weather thing, that affects the forest birds too. You can’t hear them very well. Hairy Woodpecker goes ‘peak.’ One ‘peak’ in a storm doesn’t get through. 

That was how it started. Then we headed off to Hollyhock, on the eastern side, and divided up into different groups there and on the beach.

We found Killdeer. They have colonized Cortes: 20-30 years ago, you wouldn’t find KiIldeer in the wintertime, but now we have 3-5 KiIldeer every winter in the count. Of course, they’re here in the summer nesting. They’re a new resident for Cortes and they were holed up there on the leeward side. 

Black Oystercatcher – Photo by George Sirk

There were a few Black Oystercatchers, and there were ducks offshore.  It’s not like you can just go there and see all the ducks that are missing from Smelt Bay. They’ve dispersed all the way along Sutil Point, that’s five miles of coast. The overall number of ducks on the count was down.

We ticked off all the different species. Just going down the list: 

The Common Loon, for instance, we got 22. The average is 35, so this was the lowest count in 20 years. 

Horned Grebes were down. They are the little grey and white birds that look like they have a periscope for a neck. You can often see them off the ferry, or close to shore. They’re the closest of the Grebes. We have four Grebes. That’s the littlest one, maybe 10 inches long and it feeds closest to shore. We got about 31 of those.

 Pelagic Cormorants previously averaged 20, we found 5. 

Tundra Swans – Photo by George Sirk

I won’t go on and on about how the numbers are dropped, but we now have Tundra Swan. There’s a count period, three days before the 18th of December to three days after. We add them to the list under count week (cw). Then we get an idea of what is also here. Andy and Sue Ellingsen found Tundra Swans  at the T junction of Hague Lake. What’s interesting about them is that you wouldn’t have found one here 20 years ago, even 10 years ago. These swans have come here for the past 3 years. They’re smaller than the big swans, the Trumpeters, which are real gigantic swans (8 foot wing spread). The Tundra is more like a big Canada Goose. They’ll go down to the Fraser Valley and winter down there and all points south. California, they’re getting the rain, well they’ll have the swans down there too. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same flock have come to Cortes for the past 3 years, around December-January. When I say it’s probably the same flock, it probably is the same flock. They live a long lifetime, 20-30 years I bet. They remember good spots to come down from the winds and the rains with no crocodiles in there that will eat them. So that was really neat.

 I’m just checking my notes here.

There’s a pair of Red-tailed Hawks. I say a pair because one was in Whaletown and one was in your end of the woods there, Squirrel Cove.  I don’t think it was the same bird. It’s not likely, chances are we have one pair on Cortes. I’ve never ever seen more than one at any one time. They’re often on the east coast, near Hanks Beach.  I’ll see them there and Linnaea gets them. So somewhere there’s one nest of Red-tailed Hawks. They’re mammal eaters. They like their squirrels and rats. If we had rabbits, they’d love them too.

Let me see, what else have I got in my notes? 

The Anna’s Hummingbird is down at 13, the average was around 28.  So maybe we lost a lot of them last year. They’re a resident hummingbird, and  don’t migrate away. That fierce cold snap of last January, February, was  six weeks where we really got it right. We were going down 10°-15° below. 

It impacted several species of birds. 

One isn’t even here anymore, it’s the Hutton’s Vireo. It’s like a warbler, olive gray and  hard to see, but after that cold snap they disappeared from Cortes. I never heard another one during all of 2022. We’re at the northern limit of their range. They live from here down to Baja, California. This is it. You can’t go to Stuart Island and see one. Now you can’t go over to Cortes Island and see one. We’re in the Gulf Islands biotic zone, which is mild enough for that bird to live here, but I think last winter was too much for it. The few that were here left said, ‘This is no good.’ They’ll have to recolonize Cortes and we don’t know when that’s going to happen.

One of the other birds that normally come – and this year there are zero (0) – Is the Pine Siskin. It is a small finch and in the wintertime it congregates into clouds of birds. Sometimes you’ll see only 10 or 20, but I’ve seen flocks of  a couple hundred together and descend on the Alder trees. They get in there and get the seeds out of  the catkins of the Alders.  They really like the Alders. They call, “zwee.” They have this funny noise. I’m sure people, think,  ‘I’ve seen those birds that are like bees way up in the air.’ Zero came this year.

So why is it? Was it the cold last year? Or is it just a natural cycle?

Purple Finch – Photo by George SIrk

Finches, like Red Crossbills, are cyclic.  Their population climbs for a couple of years and then they drop right off. Then climbs and drops right off again. Something to do with the connection to all the seeds available in the trees?

I thought at first that maybe it was the cold, but there’s 11 species that live in the high arctic all year long. One of them is the Redpoll, which is no bigger than this little Pine Siskin. It’s 3½-4 inches long, but it lives in the high arctic and it can survive up there. Their strategy when the temperature drops like 30°-40° below and there’s a blizzard, they fly right into the snow banks. There’s several of them together in there and they all cuddle up together because snow is a great insulator.  So they stay warm for a few days. They’ve already eaten lots of seeds and they’re digesting them in there. As soon as the blizzard passes, out they come. It’s a balmy 20° below. They just cruise along.

Red Breasted Sapsuckers – Photo by George Sirk

 It’s not just the cold that gave us ‘0’ Pine Siskins. Woodpeckers were a complete washout. We got no Sapsuckers, no Downy Woodpeckers and no Pileated Woodpeckers (the big boys, like Woody Woodpecker). I know there’s one around here, but I didn’t get it in the count week and I didn’t find it on the count day. You probably have them in your backyard flying through now and then.

 Cortes Currents: I don’t know, we had a lot of Juncos. 

George Sirk: Let’s talk about Juncos. The number #1 bird, the most populous bird of Cortes island is the Junco. Over 700 were recorded.  They do very well here. So obviously last summer, with the dryness, was just perfect for them. They got enough seeds. They nest in open bluffs. Mountain tops as well.  So on top of Easter Bluff, on top of anywhere where there’s Manzanita and Arbutus. That’s their natural habitat. They did very well and everybody feeding them also helps. Almost a third of all the birds we recorded were Juncos. 

The other species that jumped up as well was the the Rufous-sided Towhee. Now it’s called the Spotted Towhee.  By the way, I hate it when they change the names. It just drives me nuts. Anyways, they were up for sure.

Fox Sparrow – Photo by George Sirk

Fox Sparrows,  the big brown sparrows bigger than the Song Sparrow, they were up as well. 30 over the whole island. 

What else happened? 

The top bird, like the big award and I haven’t talked to her yet,  but it was found by Ann Dewar. A Northern Shrike came to her place during the count week.  I’ve never seen one here. The closest I’ve seen it to here is in Powell River one time about four years ago. There’s a couple of records (in 2003 and 2005). I don’t know who got those, but it’s a very rare bird.  It’s about the size of our Towhee, but it’s gray all over, black and white on the wings and has a black mask like the Lone Ranger and a gray cap.  Also a long tail, like a Mockingbird (if you know what those look like). Quite a striking bird that is something really different.  It has a hooked bill,  but it’s a perching bird like a Robin and a Sparrow, et cetera, et cetera.  Here is this perching bird that behaves like a hawk, like an owl. It is a predator and it’s a fierce one. It’ll catch those poor little Siskins or a Song Sparrow, and with its hook bill – that’s it! 

If there’s too much to eat, the Northern Shrike sticks it on a Hawthorne bush. It just impales it. That’s for later, midnight snack kind of thing, or tomorrow when the hunting is not so good. They’ll catch voles, mice and rats. For a bird only the size of a Towhee, that is  pretty amazing. They nest way up north: in the Northwest Territories; way high up in Alaska. That was a long way for it to come, but they had to leave because it’s just too cold and horrible up there. 

When they’re courting, the male will catch what’s up there. They’ll catch lemmings in the summer, of course, that’s perfect. They’ll impale it on something and then they’ll go and catch another lemming and impale it on the same bush. The bush will have several creatures hanging off of it, like  something out of Monty Python. The female then comes along and goes, ‘yeah, that’s pretty good. Alright, you can be my mate.’ So  he shows how great he is at hunting, which is of course the point of it all, right? You want to have a good hunter. She will hunt too, of course, but that’s their relationship. Kind of a neat bird to get and that was the top one here on Cortes.

Oh, I always go for what’s the best bird.

On the count day, it was the Greater Yellowlegs, it’s a Sandpiper, about 12-14 inches tall. Quite a long straight bill grey all over and white rump. When it flies, it goes, “tew, tew, tew.” Quite a neat bird and bright like your tape measure, bright yellow legs. Really, that’s the name. There’s a Lesser Yellowlegs and then there’s the Greater. Guess which one is the bigger one? That one was spotted by Chris Napper. He had his group of about six people in Whaletown. It’s been seen now for a few years in a row. So if we are indeed getting milder here – well, the rains are showing us that we are – the Greater Yellow Legs is taking advantage of that to over winter here. Normally you might get them in Victoria, and points south right down to Mexico.  The last few years they’ve been hanging around here, but two days after our count the big freeze came on Cortes . Snow, 5°-8° below and Whaletown Bay just froze right up.  Those Yellowlegs took right off. 

We only got two Great Blue Herons on the count. Again, I think it’s because of the weather. You couldn’t spot them out in Smelt Bay because they weren’t there. Were they on the other side? Well, we didn’t have that many people. 

Varied Thrush – Photo by George SIrk

 Speaking of people we had 33 people partake in the counts. Nine of those were at home, from what they saw on their feeder or in their backyard, and they sent in the information either to myself or Gina at the museum.  We had about 24 people that actually went out and froze, got cold and enjoyed it. It was sunny, that’s the bright side of it. 

That’s quite a good turnout, 24 people, and the kicker is two people came from Quadra. They came from abroad to join our count! I never heard of such a thing. I thought that was really neat. They’re starving for going bird watching because Quadra, with 5,000 people, they don’t have a Christmas Bird Count. They don’t have the organized museum that we do who puts it all together.

It takes a lot of work to first designate all the different areas, get all the people organized as to where they’re going to go and then compile all the data. Then I worked with Gina, going over the records.  I would look at a bird.and say, “Rubbish, we didn’t see that. No one saw that. Just scratch that one off the list.” You have to have  really good field notes, or a photograph. If you’ve got those two and you’ve found a rare bird, then we’re in business. I’ll accept the record, but if it’s just, ‘oh yeah, I saw, I know it looked like one.’ Sorry, this is scientific count. We don’t pad it.  There’s no padding here. We just want what really was there. 

So what did we get as the total? I have my notes here. We found: 2,427 individual birds, and 54 species. 

Now the average is somewhere around 70 species.  So back to the whole weather thing as to what knocked it down. A couple of years ago we recorded 82 species. That’s quite a range, from 54 to 82.

Ring-necked duck, male – Photo by George Sirk

That year it was a beautiful day, was 1° degree, and we got over 4,000 individuals. That means we could go to Smelt Bay with a telescope and ‘count, count, count’ all those ducks. Go to Hollyhock Beach, Hanks Beach, Cortes Bay, Squirrel Cove, Whaletown: boom, boom, boom, and get all the oceanic birds. 

That’s what we’re big on here. We’ve got a lot of oceanic birds. 

Surf Scoters (picture top of page) are #2 in species. What did we get there? 395 Surf Scoters. Last year we had 1,000 of them and then the year before, 800 and the year before that, 394. So you can say, oh, 394 versus 395.

Once again, you can’t find them all. 

There is a cute story about those Surf Scoters. In the Gorge they grow mussels in those cages. They have to have a scuba diver go down there because the cages get holes in them. They have to sew it up, and he’s seeing the Surf Scoters because they eat mussels and clams. They love them.  Here you have this banquet all in a cage and all them Surf Scoters have to do is find the hole. They don’t make the holes, they just have to find the holes. And so he was telling me that he saw the Surf Scoters down below. They ignore him.  They go in the hole and one comes out.   The next one goes in and another one comes out. They were taking turns, one going in, one going out because of course the one in the cage is holding its breath. It wants to get out. So they were taking turns, kind of like a revolving door in a hotel. I hear some big figures, total hearsay, estimates of $50,000 a month gobbled up by those Scoters. Hey, they’d be tasty, those Scoters, but we can’t hunt them. Now there is an opportunistic bird. If we’re going to put all those mussels in a cage – well, we better make sure that we keep them out. 

We are not allowed to chase the birds. They got in a bit of trouble a few years ago, I believe.  Somebody was going out in a boat and was scaring the Surf Scoters away from the cages.

All these birds are protected. You’re not allowed to go out there and scare them because they’re eating all your food.  You have to make sure that you keep them out.  You can’t torment birds like that just because your nets aren’t good enough. So, this is just a little bit on our Surf Scoters, that’s the  #2 bird. 

I think it’s really wonderful how the Cortes Island Museum takes this on. The list goes back to 2001, when the museum first started compiling the numbers. You  can go to the museum website, see all the years and compare the numbers. You can see the fluctuations. It’s interesting data.  It’s all sent in to wherever the big coordinators are, all the data from across North America. It’s all tabulated and put together.

Top image credit: Surf Scoters, the #2 bird on Cortes Island, in terms of numbers on Dec 18, 2022 – Photo by George Sirk

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