Maniac mallards and many others spotted at the Christmas Bird Count

  • Jan. 7, 2009 1:00 p.m.

By Margo Hearne-The first bird of the day for the Greater Massett Christmas Bird Count was a mallard, laughing maniacally in the dark dawn. I don’t blame it – we could be thought insane for venturing out into this coldest of winters. But of course, we’re not. Only by getting out into the wild can many begin to make sense of the Christmas lunacy. What has happened? It seems to be more and more consumer-driven and less and less peaceful. We ran into many people who relished the peace of birds flying, snow falling and the stillness of the forest. When times seem at their most difficult, it’s a relief to know that nature will take its own course. One of the constantly astonishing things about the Christmas Bird Counts is that new birds show up every year. On Christmas Day we had a call from Martin to say that he had found a strange bird. We abandoned dinner preparations to rush to Old Massett to see a tiny morsel of feathers sitting in a hemlock beside the church. A mystery morsel. After many discussions and diversions and movings of the camera and spotting scope, Peter finally concluded it was a Little Bunting, not some small bunting species, but a Little Bunting, with capital letters, exclamation marks and many emoticons: LITTLE BUNTING!!? ?!! A very rare, Asian species and the first-ever for Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, Canada and North America, including Alaska, on the Christmas Bird Counts.After all that excitement the actual count day was a bit of an anti-climax. We were up and out early, the velvety Fox Sparrow fed peacefully and the little forest birds were hunkered down. Humans are not the only ones to go south in the cold; it’s just that we can’t fly. So we tramp through the deep snow, trudge through the brush, stroll through the meadow and wander by the riverbank. Chown Brook was completely frozen so there was nothing there. The white meadow had many Canada Geese pecking around for anything edible but the saline sloughs were open. A pintail flew off with a start and a multitude of mallard, teal, wigeon and gadwall dabbled busily. As we scanned for anything along Masset Inlet a tiny flock of very small things flew on to the beach. Seven Least Sandpipers! A Savannah Sparrow joined them, then a Song Sparrow and as we watched a Greater Yellowlegs wavered in and landed before our very eyes. Where had they been all winter? Out over Delkatla an eagle hunted languidly until hounded by a Peregrine Falcon, then a Merlin flashed through the approaching blizzard, all speedy wings and intentional direction. Ducks make a tasty dinner for the swift. The day was a shutter of light and dark. Brilliantly white and blue for half-an-hour then stunning blizzards where nothing was visible.Speaking of stunning, can I interest you in an Evening Grosbeak? It’s been heard in Masset since Nov. 29 but it wasn’t until Jan. 1 that we finally saw it. An exotic rarity and, together with the stupendous sighting of a Little Bunting, made Christmas all worthwhile. Port Clements We had one of the best days ever for weather in Port Clements with gorgeous sunshine most of the day and lovely birds in unexpected places. Three White-fronted Geese were hiding under the bleachers at the civic centre park and a Red-winged Blackbird chirped overhead when it heard that the bird count was on. Brian and Adelia’s feeder once again had a high number of White-crowned and Golden-crowned Sparrows and one White-throated Sparrow. Hundreds of ducks were back at the Yakoun Estuary and a flock of about 600 Dunlin tripped about on the mudflats. Away up in Juskatla an exceptional Canvasback floated serenely on the still water with five Lesser Scaup, eight Barrow’s Goldeneye and two Horned Grebes. Although we searched diligently for dippers, not one appeared. The rivers were partly frozen and with snow at least eight inches deep there were not many songbirds around once we left town. It took us a while to find even one Great Blue Heron, and even the Kingfisher was elusive, though we did see one. It was beautiful through the trees at Kumdis and a Red-breasted Sapsucker did its ‘low on the trees, look at me routine’ which we did and commented on how handsome it was, with its bright red head silhouetted against the bright white snow. We found one Hairy Woodpecker but the usual hotspots of salmonberry cane and alder were so covered in snow that nothing could be found. There were three Eurasian Wigeon among the American Wigeon and the 36 Trumpeter Swans presented a beautiful sight in the snow and sunshine. This increased number reverses the downward trend of the past 23 years for these lovely birds. All in all it was a very good count at the heart of the islands.