Friday, December 21, 2012

The Birds of Christmas--Craven Christmas Bird Count

a male Evening Grosbeak--rarely seen this far out onto the prairie

This post celebrates the birds of a prairie winter in a series of photos taken last Saturday, December 15th, in and around the Qu'Appelle Valley from Lumsden to Craven and beyond. It was my 20th year running the Craven Christmas Bird Count. There were 28 of us counting the birds from 8:30 am to 5 p.m. walking and driving in sectors of a fifteen mile diameter circle centred on Craven. The weather was perfect, calm, sunny and just a few degrees below zero. By the time noon rolled around and we took our customary lunch break gathering at the gracious Lumsden home of Phil and Louise Holloway, we knew we were headed toward a record number of species. Checking everyone's lists from their sectors, we already had at least 29 species and there was still the afternoon to count and a lot of roads to drive. In an average year we get between 23 and 28 species for the entire day, and the record, set in 2001, was 31.

Some birds that come south to winter on the plains only appear in numbers every few years in what naturalists refer to as an "irruption." The "winter finches"--both redpolls, both crossbills, pine siskins and pine and evening grosbeaks--are particularly irruptive and it can be hard to know ahead of time which year they will come. Bohemian waxwings also fluctuate a great deal from one year to the next. This seems to be a winter when all of these species decided to come to this part of the Great Plains for a spell. Just before noon, many of us gathered at the feeder of Curtis Pollock in Lumsden to watch several of these elegant winter birds in his yard. Curtis was off counting in his sector of the circle, but we were able to stand a few feet from his feeding station and snap photos of many of the irruptive species all in one place. Here is a series of images taken there:

took this shot of a bohemian waxwing at Barry Mitchke's acreage, but Curtis had many in his yard too.

this shot shows a male house finch in the middle, a female pine grosbeak in the background and an out of focus common redpoll in the foreground

A male red crossbill

caught this crossbill a moment after it let itself fall from a branch, and just before opening its wings

this male Pine Grosbeak was one of 41 of the species we recorded

though less colourful, female Pine Grosbeaks are every bit as graceful

this female Varied Thrush coming to a feeder in the valley near Craven was one of the rarest birds of the day, along with the single Evening Grosbeak (shown at top) and a Lapland Longspur
This fellow, a Great Horned Owl, was sunning himself later in the day

this was the last species my sector added to our list for the day--a group of five Ring-necked Pheasants crossing the snow to a favourite feeding area

and here they are feeding perhaps in a spot cleared by deer

When the day was done we had recorded 37 species, shooting past the old record by six! All those irruptive finches and waxwings choosing the same year to come this far south may have been the main reason for the high tally, but the number of skilled birders helping on the count is also making a difference.

A good friend now living in Weyburn, Carol Bjorklund, started the Craven count in 1991.That year there were eight people covering the fifteen mile wide circle. Five of those original counters have died in the last few years, including a tall, gentle birdwatcher named Milow Worel. He was always pleasant and enthusiastic, a sharp-eyed and welcome volunteer as he was at the Last Mountain Bird Observatory in spring and fall.

Every year there are new counters to replace the ones who get too old to be tromping around after birds in the snow. This year a woman named Fran Kerbs came in my vehicle. Tall and pleasant, sharp-eyed, and keen to take photos of the birds we were seeing. I asked Fran how she got started birdwatching. "I guess I was doing it all my life without knowing it. My dad was a bird watcher. Funny, I didn't really get serious about it until he died last year."

What was your dad's name, I asked, maybe I knew him. "Milow Worel," she replied.
Of course, I thought, I should have guessed that.

One of the many great blessings of this count was remembering Milow and seeing his enthusiasm so clearly living on in Fran.

A final Christmas gift from the prairie---this little guy was found by one of the other groups on our count (we also record mammal species--16 species this year). He was there scurrying over the snow back and forth at the edge of a field of stubble. Ray Poulin at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum identified it as a Prairie Shrew- Sorex haydeni.

Prairie Shrew, image courtesy of Kim Mann, another sharp-eyed volunteer on the 21st annual Craven Christmas Bird Count
The birds are lovely, but for sheer, bright intensity of life and audacious survival in the face of all the abuse we heap upon these plains, it is hard to beat a shrew foraging over snow in the dead of winter.

Christmas Blessings to one and all.


  1. Thank, you Trevor for your wonderful words. Brought tears to my eyes. Really enjoyed your photos, the look in the Bohemian Waxwing's eyes is cute! Wonderful. - Fran.

  2. Thanks Fran--Merry Christmas to you and yours.

  3. Trevor, if there is an announcement list about the birdcount, I'd love to be included in it. I wanted to do the Craven count this year but didn't know about it until after the fact...

    I'm not the greatest birder, ever, but I'm learning and getting better. Spending time at the inlaw's cottage has helped a lot, especially now that I'm paying attention!

  4. Bernadette--that's too bad I didn't know. The count is always the first saturday after the 14th of Dec. If you put that on your calendar for this year we will make sure you join us for the day. It is lots of fun and no skill is required.


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