89 ptarmigans and a shrike in Yellowknife Christmas Bird Count

A file photo of a ptarmigan.  (Paul J. Richards/Getty Images - image credit)
A file photo of a ptarmigan. (Paul J. Richards/Getty Images - image credit)

Usually when people think of bird watching, the thought of summertime hikes comes to mind.

But many avid bird watchers know there's a special time of year where they can keep an extra eye out for our feathered friends.

That includes Yellowknifer Reid Hildebrandt, a regular bird columnist on CBC's The Trailbreaker, who participated in the Audubon Christmas Bird Count hosted by The National Audubon Society since 1900.

Hildebrandt said the Christmas bird watching event started as an "alternative tradition," and then later turned into "the longest-running citizen science program in North America." in 2021, the count saw 2,600 different groups take part, in nearly 30 different countires.

"Unlike most other government-run programs, or other groups that will do different counts in the summertime, when it's easier to access places and the weather's warmer, this is one of the only opportunities to study bird numbers on a national level in the middle of winter," Hildebrandt said.

"Because it's been happening for over 100 years, the data collection is just phenomenal. And we just keep getting the chance to add to it and seeing how the trends are changing these days."

15 species sighted

Hildebrandt said this most recent winter bird count from a local perspective was a success, with 15 different types of bird species counted, which is about average.

"Last year, we had 17. But that was the highest ever. So 15 is overall a very good number for the Yellowknife counts here," Hildebrandt said.

Taken by Loren McGinnis/CBC
Taken by Loren McGinnis/CBC

There were a few "surprises" in the sightings, he said, like a shrike that isn't seen every winter. The ptarmigan numbers seem to be picking up too, he added — 89 sightings this year, which is double last year's count.

Hildebrandt said counting birds in the winter is also a chance to see friends that he'd otherwise encounter mainly in the summertime.

It's also a bonus opportunity to "walk off some of the lethargy that can build up during the holiday season."

"We had 14 people turn out … lots of walking, lots of driving. It was just overall a great day."

Overall, the Christmas Bird Count has seen bird numbers fall dramatically worldwide. "Thirty-five years ago, about 1,500 count circles recorded 100 million individual birds. In comparison, for the 122nd count last year, more than 2,600 groups counted only 42 million birds," wrote the Audubon's chief executive director Elizabeth Gray this month.

A life of bird-watching

Hildebrandt has had an interest in bird watching from a young age. He said his grandparents had a number of feeders and a "lush yard full of birds" down in southern Manitoba. He always loved to sit at the window and watch the feeders. He also had others in his life that influenced his love of birds and "my parents just ran with it."

"I basically learned learned how to read and write by writing articles or reading bird books," Hildebrandt said.

"I had the resources and the influences to keep up with it. And it's one of my favorite hobbies now."

People can take a look at the results on the Audubon website, along with past years' results. In total, the website shows there have been 200 bird counts completed in the current year, with about 3.5 million birds counted.

It also notes the current year data won't be available with the historic data set until the data are reviewed and confirmed by all of the regional editors.

The society also launched an online Bird Migration Explorer in September, which was heralded as the most comprehensive summary of migration patterns ever assembled.