89 ptarmigan and a shrike at the Yellowknife Christmas Bird Count

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

But many avid birders know there’s a special time of year when they can keep an eye out for our feathered friends.

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

Hildebrandt said the Christmas birding event started as an « alternative tradition » and then later morphed into « the longest running citizen science program in North America. » in 2021, the count saw the participation of 2,600 different groups, in almost 30 different countries.

« Unlike most other government-run programs or other groups that will do different counts in the summer, when it’s easier to get to places and the weather is warmer, this is the one of the only opportunities to study bird numbers nationally in mid-winter, says Hildebrandt.

« Because it’s been happening for over 100 years, the data collection is just phenomenal. And we continue to get the chance to add to it and see how the trends evolve these days. »

15 species sighted

Hildebrandt said this latest 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 a pretty good number overall for Yellowknife, Hildebrandt said.

Reid Hildebrandt is a resident birder on the Trailbreaker. (Photo by Loren McGinnis/CBC)

There were a few « surprises » in the sightings, he said, such as a shrike you don’t see every winter. Ptarmigan numbers also appear to be increasing, he added – 89 sightings this year, double last year.

Hildebrandt said counting birds in the winter is also a chance to see friends he would otherwise meet mostly in the summer.

It’s also an additional opportunity to « escape some of the lethargy that can build up over the holiday season. »

« We had 14 people who came…a lot of walking, a lot of driving. It was just a great day overall. »

Overall, the Christmas Bird Count has seen bird numbers drop dramatically around the world. « 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 Elizabeth Gray, chief executive of Audubon this month.

A life of birdwatching

Hildebrandt has been interested in bird watching since a young age. He said his grandparents had a number of feeders and a « lush yard full of birds » in southern Manitoba. He always liked 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 them ».

« I basically learned to read and write by writing articles or reading books about birds, » Hildebrandt said.

« I had the resources and the influences to keep up. And it’s one of my favorite hobbies now. »

People can view the results on the Audubon website, as well as results from previous years. In total, the website says 200 bird counts have been made in the current year, with around 3.5 million birds counted.

He also notes that data for the current year will not be available with the historical dataset until the data is reviewed and confirmed by all regional editors.

The company also launched an online bird migration explorer in September, which was billed as the most comprehensive summary of migration patterns ever assembled.


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