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East Kootenay birds of December, Part I

Rough-legged Hawk - Tom Munson photo
Rough-legged Hawk
— image credit: Tom Munson photo

Daryl Calder

'Unusual' is a good word to describe the 114th Annual Christmas Bird Count as it occurred in Cranbrook on the Saturday following Christmas Day. We had an unusually large number of participants, both field and feeder counters. The weather was unusually good for counting, with clear skies, mild temperatures and light winds. However, the species count was below average partly due to the unusual absence of several common species.

About 20 people divided themselves into four groups and got down to business of using their eyes and ears to detect birds in each of the four quadrants of our 14 kilometre radius circle. Inexperienced birders welcomed the opportunity to partner with more knowledgeable naturalists, learning useful skills such as keeping quiet and focussing the binoculars quickly. On some occasions only one bird of a particular species was detected, heightening the need to observe as many characteristics before the bird disappeared.

We looked at the perching silhouette, beak size and shape, and wing and tail configuration even if we couldn't discern color or pattern of plumage. In flight, we noted the frequency of wingbeats, whether steady or intermittent, strong or weak, hovering, dipping or soaring. The type of habitat also provided strong clues; wetland or open forest, dense shrubbery  or open grassland  and of course 'shopping cart corrals at superstore' for the English Sparrow.

Occasionally, identification is a no-brainer in the case of a Ruffed Grouse walking in slow motion, an American Robin catching the sun or Bald Eagles overhead.

Absent from our list were the Pine Grosbeaks, Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins. It's possible that the lack of heavy snow in the mid-elevations has not forced some birds into the lower elevations. Snow-encrusted trees make it more difficult for birds to access conifer cones and shelter. Also, the relative lack of extreme cold, harsh weather has not caused some birds to migrate as far south into our area as usual.

Several regular 'hot spots' continued to provide an interesting selection of birds. Slaterville has a good variety of habitats with open water in lower Hospital Creek, diverse tree species and shrubbery (Shrike), and numerous active feeders. Green Bay also has 'fish bearing' open water (Pied-billed Grebe) and proximity to several forest types as does the vicinity of the St. Eugene Mission (American Dipper). Urban areas have some good feeders and varied vegetation (Bohemian Waxwing). Of course, a visit to the primary treatment lagoons and nearby Joseph Creek ponds yielded Green-winged Teal, Goldeneye, Kingfisher and Song Sparrow.

One highlight of the day occurred as we began counting at Elizabeth Lake. A Rough-legged Hawk circled and hovered conveniently off to the east. A hawk of the north, these large birds breed in northern tundra and taiga regions around the northern hemisphere. Both dark and light forms are common, with many birds intermediate between the extremes. In flight, one good field clue is the dark marks at the 'wrists' of the long, broad wings.

The name 'Rough-legged' refers to the feathered legs. The Ferruginous Hawk and Golden Eagle are the only other North American Hawks to have legs feathered all the way to the toes. These birds prefer open coniferous forests, tundra and generally barren country, breeding on cliffs or in trees. They winter also in grasslands and open cultivated areas of the East Kootenay where they eat small mammals and some birds. Rough-legged hawks will hunt from an elevated perch, or will hover frequently if in flight. There is no evidence of any change in North American breeding populations.

As can be seen from the list, the bird count is a useful exercise; we are fortunate to have a wide range of species frequenting our area. Thank you to all participants; we look forward to seeing you throughout the year.

Cranbrook Christmas Bird Count,

December 28, 2013

Total Individuals: 1325

Total Species Reported: 39

• Mallard 254

• American Green-winged Teal 3

• Common Goldeneye 43

• Ruffed Grouse 1

• Pied-billed Grebe 1

• Bald Eagle 4

• Rough-legged Hawk 1

• Golden Eagle 1

• Rock Pigeon 63

• Northern Pygmy-Owl 1

• Belted Kingfisher 3

• Downy Woodpecker 12

• Hairy Woodpecker 10

• American Three-toed Woodpecker 1

• Northern (Red-shafted) Flicker 34

• Pileated Woodpecker 9

• Northern Shrike 1

• Gray Jay 7

• Steller's Jay 15

• Blue Jay 20

• Clark's Nutcracker 34

• American Crow 66

• Common Raven 226

• Black-capped Chickadee 97

• Mountain Chickadee 64

• chickadee species 28

• Red-breasted Nuthatch 43

• White-breasted Nuthatch 1

• American Dipper 6

• Golden-crowned Kinglet 4

• Townsend's Solitaire 15

• American Robin 1

• European Starling 30

• Bohemian Waxwing 11

• Song Sparrow 12

• Dark-eyed Junco 5

• Red-winged Blackbird 8

• House Finch 158

• Evening Grosbeak 12

• House Sparrow 2

Submitted by Daryl Calder on behalf of Rocky Mountain Naturalists

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