On a chilly Tuesday morning in mid December, Ann Nightingale is out at Ten Mile Point, scouring the waterfront for a snowy owl.
She heard the bird was spotted on a nearby island a couple days ago. Spending hours searching for a certain bird is something that’s become the norm.
“It gets you outside. I am always learning new things. It’s great for me, I get to spend time with friends,” said Nightingale, who’s been birding for about 16 years and gets out at least a couple times a week.
“I’m still exploring new locations that I haven’t visited before and birds are often the motivation to do that.”
The Victoria resident is among a few hundred participants gearing up for the annual Christmas Bird Count on Saturday — a tradition that began over a century ago when 27 conservationists in 25 localities, led by scientist and writer Frank Chapman, changed the course of ornithological history.
Today, more than 71,000 volunteers from all 50 states, every Canadian province, parts of Central and South America, Bermuda, the West Indies and Pacific Islands, count and record every individual bird and bird species seen in a specified area. It’s an exercise participants say is vital in monitoring the status of resident and migratory birds across the Western Hemisphere.
Last year, a record setting 241 field participants headed to the streets, parks and beaches in the capital region to count all the birds they could find. Covering more than 11,000 kilometres during their search, a total of 71,761 individual birds of 141 species were counted, marking the highest species total of all the Canadian counts that year.
Participants also saw two birds that had never been recorded in Victoria — a yellow-breasted chat that should have been wintering in Central America and a redwing that should have been lounging near the Mediterranean.
For Nightingale, the redwing was the star of the show.
“That was not only a lifer for pretty much everyone in Victoria, but the bird was rare enough that people were literally flying in from Texas, Florida and New England to see this bird in Strawberry Vale,” said Nightingale, who’s seen about 550 bird species in North America, including a record-setting 269 on Vancouver Island in a single year.
“When you have a bird that’s that exciting, you go back several times. It’s not just a tick on your list. I went back probably 20 times while it (the redwing) was here. As it got later in the year it started singing so that was pretty phenomenal.”
According to Nightingale, coordinator of the bird count, there are a few birds in Victoria at the moment that shouldn’t be here. Those include a tropical kingbird at Ten Mile Point, a western bluebird in Colwood and a mountain bluebird in Central Saanich. But one of the most interesting things about birding is the shift in numbers.
Some birds that used to be rare are now common, such as the white throated sparrow and turkey vulture. However, some species, like the red head duck and sky lark, used to be a regular, but are now rarely seen.
“There’s a lot of factors, but one is the decline of birds in general. Studies show we’ve lost about 50 per cent of the world’s birds in the last 50 years, which is just horrendous,” said Nightingale, noting some species have headed to other parts of the world. “It’s all tied to food really. If their food is shifting northward then they’ll shift northward.”
This year’s bird count takes place within a 24 km radius that stretches to the ocean shores in Victoria to Wallace Road in Central Saanich, Oak Bay and Witty’s Lagoon.
Everyone is invited to report the birds in their yards or come out and join a field team. For more information and a brochure with photos of 28 of the most common species seen around feeders and gardens visit naturevictoria.ca/cbc.