Submitted by Jenny L. Feick, PhD

Fifty years ago, I discovered the North American Christmas Bird Count, thanks to an Alberta family that unofficially adopted me when I moved to Calgary to begin my university studies in 1973. 

One November day, they explained that from December 14 through January 5 every year, they, with tens of thousands of other volunteers throughout the Americas would brave winter to identify all bird species in a specific area, count the individual birds they saw, and then share results. 

The data collected in this longest-running wildlife census in the world would be used to assess bird populations and guide conservation actions. It sounded interesting to a young biology undergraduate student, and a good way to get to know more about the area’s winter bird life while spending time with my new friends. 

Christmas Bird Count day dawned extremely cold, so cold that Liz Allen, an asthmatic, opted to stay indoors and conduct a bird feeder count of visiting species that day. Her husband Des warned me to bundle up for driving and walking as we looked for birds. He and his eldest son Peter picked me up at my apartment before 8 a.m. when it was still dark. I wondered what we would see, knowing it would be tough birds, the ones that could withstand a Western Canadian winter.

The area assigned to us to explore was way out in north-east Calgary and adjacent agricultural lands. As the sun rose, the light bouncing off of the snowy fields became intensely bright. Identifying colours or other distinctive marks on the back-lit birds became nearly impossible. 

Des and Peter were amazingly adept at identifying birds based on their silhouettes and behaviour. They could even distinguish species by their calls. From the sighing sounds, they knew that an immense flock of medium-sized birds that soared overhead and landed en masse in a distant poplar tree were all Bohemian waxwings.

As we made our rounds, besides the usual black-billed magpies, gray partridges, house sparrows, and black-capped chickadees, we saw an extraordinary number of snowy owls. I had never before seen these imposing white birds with their bright yellow eyes in the wild. They had arranged themselves on fence posts, one per each quarter section of land. 

I was ecstatic at the first sighting. Each time we turned a corner and spotted another, it was a Christmas gift. Des explained that certain years, snowy owls moved south from the Arctic in search of food. Other years, one might not see any. 

Walking against the cold wind numbed our faces but was needed periodically to get close enough to count snow buntings decorating a farmer’s field or a flock of common redpolls adorning a bush like little Christmas ornaments. 

As dusk fell, temperatures dropped, and we called it a day. Back at their place, Liz put the kettle on and Des made a fire in their stone fireplace. 

As we drank cups of milk-laden Earl Grey tea, Liz relayed the antics of the magpies, woodpeckers, grosbeaks and other birds at their feeder that day. Peter and Des tallied the species we saw and how many individuals of each species. They sent their report to the count coordinator who compiled the results for the National Audubon Society to publish.  

After that, I was hooked on the Christmas Bird Count as a wonderful way to begin the festive Christmas season. I looked forward to joining Des and others in the Decembers to come. During another Christmas Bird Count with Des west of Cochrane, Alberta in 1979, a northern shrike, in hot pursuit of a flock of tiny pine siskins, nearly flew into his car just as I opened the back door to grab the binoculars. 

Since then, I have participated in Christmas Bird Counts all across Canada. Besides Calgary and Cochrane, this includes the Bow Valley in the Rocky Mountains around Banff/Canmore to Bow Summit in Banff National Park, Alberta; the snow-laden slopes of the Columbia Mountains near Revelstoke, B.C.; the icy shores of Newman Sound in Terra Nova National Park, Newfoundland; and the many mild, rainy, bird-rich places around Victoria on Vancouver Island in B.C. This year, my husband Ian Hatter and I look forward to doing our fourth Christmas Bird Count in the Invermere Count Area on Saturday, December 16, and celebrating with other counters afterwards. 

To join the 2023 Invermere Christmas Bird Count on Saturday, Dec. 16, contact Gareth Thomson, the count coordinator, at  [email protected].

Last year, the 26 Invermere Christmas Bird Count volunteers counted 43 species with varied thrushes, American goldfinch, pied-billed grebes and American coots the most unexpected sightings. 

This year marks the 123rd year since the Christmas Bird Count began in North America.