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Sharing insights from 50 years of counting birds in Salmon Arm

Ted Hillary’s love of his feathered friends began as a prairie boy in Saskatchewan
Back in 2016, Ted Hillary, Mike Saul and Cathy Meakes look at a pair of bald eagles while performing the annual Christmas Bird Count in Peter Jannink Nature Park in Salmon Arm. (File photo)

The last Sunday before Christmas is a special day for Ted Hillary – and has been for the past 50 years.

1971 was the first year that Hillary donned his winter gear, picked up his binoculars and headed out to do the Christmas bird count in Salmon Arm, a practice he has continued, fair weather and foul, to this day.

Birds became a passion when he was about 10 and living with his family in Saskatchewan.

“One of the things prairie boys used to do, we used to go out and collect bird eggs in the spring,” he said. “That’s where I got interested in birds way back.”

Although egg collecting was a short-lived pastime as a young person, at 82, his fascination with birds has only grown stronger over the years.

Along with his local birding activity, which includes daily walks around Salmon Arm Bay – to the wharf, Peter Jannink Park and West Harbour Village – and observation of his busy backyard feeder, he keeps careful daily records of his avian sightings. In his backyard alone, he normally sees 12 to 14 species a day, mostly song sparrows, juncos and chickadees.

Hillary records all sightings on the eBird website, where the data is stored in an international database. With more than one billion eBird observations worldwide, the site states it helps power research and conservation work around the world.

Hillary’s name comes up regularly if you search ‘Salmon Arm Bay’ or ‘Salmon Arm’ or ‘Columbia Shuswap’ sightings.

The approximate 280 species sightings in Salmon Arm Bay make it one of the best spots in Interior B.C. to birdwatch.

Read more: Shuswap Lake becomes important layover for flight of pelicans

As coordinator of the annual bird count, Hillary carefully compiles his and other volunteers’ sightings on that day. The Salmon Arm count was based at its inception on a 15-mile radius from the junction of 30th Street NE with the Trans-Canada Highway, he said.

Humble about his 50-year commitment, Hillary emphasized the article should be about birds, not him, because birds are what’s important.

The most recent Christmas Bird Count was held on Sunday, Dec. 19, 2021, with 29 participants in 11 groups of one to five people each.

“A total of 64 species was seen with an additional 3 during count week,” his report reads. “This is one of the lowest number of species ever seen on our Christmas Bird Count. Perhaps this is because of the cold weather in the week before the count, freezing open water and bringing in the snow. The total number of birds seen was 6950. This also is quite below our average.”

Hillary said it’s hard to draw conclusions from just one year’s count. More than 2,000 Canada Geese could be seen between Appleyard and the mouth of the river shortly before Dec. 19, but come the bird count, none were there, he said. No swans were in the bay as they need shallow open water.

“Along the edges of the lake it was all frozen so they couldn’t get anything to eat. I think that has a lot to do with it.”

Read more: Birds in Shuswap can use support during extreme cold

Overall, the most common bird seen was still the Canada goose with 1,514 spotted.

“In second place,” reads his report, “were the bohemian waxwings with 998, followed by European starlings with 844. Rounding out the top five were 516 mallards and 486 rock pigeons, both numbers somewhat below average.”

Notable sightings included a record high number of red-winged blackbirds; the previous record was 355 set in 2018.

“There was only one owl found this year, a short-eared owl near the Salmon River. Also, only 2 pine siskins were seen, at a feeder, when often hundreds are seen. There were no loons, wrens, redpolls or crossbills,” he wrote.

Hillary also took part in the Enderby Armstong bird count.

“There are usually 25 to 30 species. This year there are only about 15. That’s just the way it is,” he said, adding he doesn’t think it’s because birds there are declining, it’s due to the weather.

“If next year and the year after and the year after you have 15 species, then you start to have a trend.”

Read more: Extreme cold weather causes detrimental impacts on birds in B.C.: Wildlife experts

However, he does observe that development of land has had a big effect on the bird population.

“Because Salmon Arm is built up and built up and built up, a lot of the birds we don’t get anymore. I used to look out on a 10-acre field with an orchard. You look out now and there’s 45 houses. I think that’s the same throughout Salmon Arm. We have less birds, more population.”

He said swallow numbers have decreased. Swallows eat insects and insects are fewer than they used to be. Meadowlarks and bluebirds, who need open fields, aren’t around anymore.

“I think the policy they have is to encourage development. It might be good for the tax base but not for wildlife.”

Nonetheless, Hillary remains unruffled by the bird count numbers.

“I enjoy doing the Christmas bird count. I will continue doing it as long as I can. Each year is different and we have to take that in stride.”
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Martha Wickett

About the Author: Martha Wickett

came to Salmon Arm in May of 2004 to work at the Observer. I was looking for a change from the hustle and bustle of the Lower Mainland, where I had spent more than a decade working in community newspapers.
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