RARE AND RUSTY   The unusual sightings  of three rusty blackbirds  (one of whom is seen in this photo) highlighted the 36th annual Christmas Bird Count  in the Columbia Valley. This years event included 40 birders who spotted about 1,550 birds in a 15-mile diameter around Wilmer. This years results are being entered into an online database that will help determine bird population trends. Photo by Dean Nicholson

RARE AND RUSTY The unusual sightingsof three rusty blackbirds(one of whom is seen in this photo) highlighted the 36th annual Christmas Bird Countin the Columbia Valley. This years event included 40 birders who spotted about 1,550 birds in a 15-mile diameter around Wilmer. This years results are being entered into an online database that will help determine bird population trends.Photo by Dean Nicholson

By Greg Amos

Pioneer Staff

The appearance of three rusty blackbirds were among the highlights of the 36th annual Christmas Bird Count in the Columbia Valley, which took place amidst 5 C weather on Boxing Day (Thursday, December 26th) thanks to the efforts of some dedicated citizen scientists.

The rusty blackbirds were an excellent sighting for a species that rarely appears on the count and is now considered a species at risk in Canada due to large population declines, said local biologist and organizer Cam Gillies. Other notable sightings included two hooded mergansers and a short-eared owl that was seen on Christmas Day, but was in hiding for the official count the next day.

About 40 volunteers observed a total of 1,550 birds over the course of the day. As in the past, the count occurred within a 15-mile (24-kilometre) radius, centred around Wilmer and including Athalmer, the Wilmer wetlands, Invermere, Windermere and

Radium Hot Springs.

Mallards were the most counted bird on the day, with 549 observed by Dean and Bill Nicholson in the Athalmer wetlands. Its not the highest number of mallards ever counted, but is about twice the long-term average, explained Mr. Gillies. The next most seen bird was the bohemian waxwing, of which 200 were counted about half the

average number.

The three trumpeter swans observed were an exciting find, as I dont think they have ever been recorded on the count, he added.

Worldwide, this was the 114th year of the Christmas Bird Count a tradition that began as the Christmas Side Hunt, in which North American hunters competed over who could shoot the most birds in a day.

After the noticeable effect that had on bird populations, the custom changed in 1900 into a bird count through binoculars rather than the sight of a gun.

Some birds never before detected in past counts in the Columbia Valley, such as the house finch, a common winter feeder bird, now appear regularly. But missing from this years tally were the house sparrow, the evening grosbeak (another species that has undergone widespread declines), and very surprisingly, the American robin.

The cold weather in early December may have chased the robins south or they could still be around, but managed to elude the birders, said Mr. Gillies.

For the first time, this years local results will be part of a much bigger picture, as the numbers are being submitted to Bird Studies Canada, a national bird research and conservation organization. Its hoped that counts from the past Boxing Days will also be accepted by the organization.

Locally, we have a tremendous record of bird sightings thanks to the amazing efforts of Larry Halverson, Fran Kimpton and all the people that have contributed over the 36 years, said Mr. Gillies. Worldwide, the count plays an important role in assessing the trends in individual species and conservation action that can be taken to reverse declines.

Anyone seeking to take part next year or looking for this years results is welcome to call Mr. Gillies at 250-342-9605 or reach him by email at cam.gillies@telus.net .