Despite all the ways in which 2020 was a different year, monitoring the natural world has to continue regardless of global pandemics.
Evolving out of the old tradition of a Boxing Day bird hunt, where people competed to see who could shoot the most birds while walking off their Christmas feasts, birds have officially been counted, and the numbers compiled, by the American Audubon Society, since 1900.
Canadians have participated since the first count. Though the early records are vague, Yukoners have been taking part since roughly the 1970s. Dawson birders began organized XBCs (as Christmas Bird Counts are abbreviated) in 2009. A count was begun soon after at Tombstone Territorial Park. Dawson is often the coldest count on Earth. It’s not abnormal for temperatures to be -30 degrees C, and, in 2019, a temperature of -35 degrees C, combined with a howling wind, shoved the wind chill rating off the charts.
Unsurprisingly, most of the birds we count are hardened winter residents such as chickadees, ravens and grey jays, redpolls and grouse. Several species of woodpecker, such as the hairy woodpecker, somehow manage to locate hibernating bugs (though the one pictured here has chosen a meaty bone as an easier meal).
Altogether, about 25 species have been recorded by Dawson volunteer bird counters. Some of them, such as magpie, mallard and white-crowned sparrow have been seen only once. Crossbills are abundant some years and absent others.
This year, the Tombstone count attracted more observers than usual. There were 17 people snowshoeing, skiing and walking through clear, calm and mild conditions. After the count, participants gathered by a fire and toasted snacks and drank hot chocolate in what amounted to the biggest social event in months.
Birding is COVID-safe by design, as it’s best done alone, or in small bubbles, and, of course, outdoors.
The Christmas bird counts provide valuable information about how bird numbers are trending. Many songbird populations are declining, some drastically, almost always related to things that happen in the south. Thus far, Yukon resident birds are doing well. As the winters get milder, more birds are overwintering successfully.