For one Hay River photographer, the annual Christmas Bird Count is more than just ticking off a species list of his fine feathered friends. Gary Vizniowski took on accumulating the results of the annual count and entering them into a now national database around the same time he started bird watching. Always a photographer at heart, he became more involved in identifying species when he acquired a digital camera.
His work will be on display this month at NWT Centennial Library. He was there on Dec. 5 to talk to some folks about how he captures his images.
But Vizniowski prefers to spend much of his time outdoors, sneaking up on his elusive flying subjects.
“Birds are always coming and going,” said Vizniowski. “They don’t just sit there for you. Seeing a bird from a bush with a pair of binoculars, you just see it. But in trying to get a decent picture, you capture it.”
The origin of the annual bird count in North America is somewhat unusual. It was started at the turn of the 20th century in reaction to a dwindling bird population and a ritual called the Christmas ‘side hunt’ in which a winner would be chosen for most birds shot.
Instead of the bird shoot, an American ornithologist named Frank Chapman introduced a bird count by proposing an annual census in North America.
Since then, the counts have been helpful in determining decreasing populations and the movement of species across the continent.
On Dec. 16, Vizniowski will be heading out with camera in hand to count birds and capture images.
The Christmas Bird Count can be conducted on any one day between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5 inclusive.
Along with 12 other birders who will be participating in the Hay River area, Vizniowski will be entering numbers of species for the 113th annual count.
The bird watchers work within an area with a 24-kilometre diameter. That coverage area was set in the 1970s and covers from the Great Slave Lake beach to just before the golf course.
Results from each count are available online and can be compared to other years for spikes and dives in population.
Some people taking part will be checking on their backyard feeders while others, like Vizniowski, will be getting into the thick of things, taking to the trails and some out-of-the-way roosting spots.
“There are birds that generally stay here in winter, but we do see some birds that are out of season,” he said. “I’ve seen some starlings at the dump lately when they should be gone south.”
Aside from the artistic payoffs, Vizniowski said the survey helps study bird species, and their habitats, numbers and tendencies, to come up with strategies that can protect them.
Last year, there were around 20 species counted in and around survey time, just shy of the estimated 30 that exist in the NWT. The numbers of ravens and house sparrows have fluctuated in the past few years.
Vizniowski has a few images of the birds displayed this month, like the great grey owl, but during this count he’s hoping to add a white-winged crossbill to his list. It’s the species of bird that has adapted to eat pine cones with a sharp cross in its beak, giving the bird its name.
“What’s unique about the northern breeds is the fact that they can survive in such a harsh climate with not a lot of food,” said Vizniowski.
Numbers from the 2011 bird count:
Common raven: 225
Black-billed magpie: 19
Black-capped chickadee: 19
Boreal chickadee: 9
Pine grosbeak: 30
House sparrow: 5
Common redpoll: 52
Hoary redpoll: 2
Spruce grouse: 9
Ruffed grouse: 1
Downy woodpecker: 1
Hairy woodpecker: 2
Red-breasted nuthatch: 1
Gray jay: 6
Dark-eyed junco: 1
Also observed during the week: American robin, great grey owl, pileated woodpecker and Bohemian waxwings.
— Angele Cano