Numbers of willow ptarmigan fell to their lowest ever recorded during the latest December count of Yellowknife bird numbers, with just seven sighted.
The birds, entirely white in winter, are a fixture in the Northwest Territories. However, birder Bob Bromley – who coordinated this year's Christmas bird count in Yellowknife – said their absence had been noted in recent months.
"I can't count the number of times people have come up to me this year and said, 'Where are the ptarmigan?' That's on everybody's minds," Bromley told Cabin Radio.
"When we gathered to start the count, everybody was saying they weren't seeing any ptarmigan this year at all."
Despite the low ptarmigan figure during the count, which took place on December 29, Bromley said there's no suggestion the birds' numbers are declining in the longer term.
"It really isn't a concern at this point," he said. "We have demonstrated – over the 36 years that we've been publishing results – that there is a 10-year cycle for the willow ptarmigan. Some years, the low has been 35 or something like that. The high might be 320 or it might be 475.
"I would expect a swing up, starting next year. It'll be very modest, but it'll probably increase over the next four or five years."
This year, 15 people braved temperatures below -30C to conduct the bird count. They combed the city and its surrounds by foot, ski, car, and snowmobile to provide the yearly count of winter bird species.
The project is part of a broader international event organized by the Audubon Society.
Bromley acknowledged counting birds is difficult, particularly large numbers in one place, given the ease with which birds could be spotted multiple times. He said sometimes the true figure may be up to 30 percent higher or lower than the one reported, but the group aims to keep its methods consistent from year to year – so trends over time can be identified, even if numbers may not be exact.
Counting Yellowknife's ravens
While ptarmigan are having a quiet year, this year's winners are ravens.
Counters identified 2,618 ravens during the course of December 29, surpassing the previous year's raven estimate by six birds. (Bromley said the two counts being so close, a year apart, was "astounding.")
"When we first started doing this count, the very first count we did was in 1973 and our estimate of the number of ravens was 300 – with about 7,000 people," said Bromley. "As the population has grown, the number of ravens has grown dramatically as well.
"They're doing fine. It's the highest count we've ever had."
Ravens on side mirrors are as close as they appear. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
In second place behind ravens? There were 91 house sparrows. It is not a close contest.
On a broader note, Bromley said the overall results of the bird count were surprisingly positive given Yellowknife's cold winter to date and the fact that fewer counters than usual were able to come out.
Fifteen species of bird were identified on the counting day itself and another three species during the week of the count. Among them were a handful of unusual sightings, like a great grey owl and two snow buntings.
"The diversity of birds is actually pretty high," said Bromley. "I'd say we're reflecting what we would expect with climate change and a building population of people offering ecological niches, like new feeding and shelter opportunities.
"Some of our normal birds have been down in numbers and we've had quite a cold winter. But there's actually a surprising diversity of birds in town, even though the numbers are low."