Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

They're flying high

Manitoba birders are looking forward to the annual Christmas Bird Count Sunday

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While walking down Wellington Crescent, people stop and stare at Bryce Hoye as he raises his binoculars and tries to spot a woodpecker in a tree nearby.

The watcher is being watched.

"These are the kinds of things you have to put up with if you want to be birder," Hoye said Friday.

It doesn't take long before the 25-year-old University of Manitoba student is interrupted again, this time not by curious onlookers but by the "peeps, squeaks and whistles" of a chickadee. In the span of no more than half an hour, Hoye spots eight birds of three different species.

"When you're a true birder, your attention is constantly divided," he said.

Hoye is part of a tight-knit fraternity of birdwatchers in Manitoba, many of whom will brave the winter cold to take part in the 113th annual Christmas Bird Count, which takes flight this weekend.

During daily counts across Canada and the United States, groups of birders count birds and then number of species in their assigned regions of the city.

More than 17,000 birds of 46 different species were tallied in Winnipeg during the Christmas count in 2011.

This year, there are about 100 birdwatchers slated to participate in Winnipeg, said Rudolf Koes, the co-ordinator for the local count, which will happen Sunday.

The event typically becomes a competition among birdwatchers to top each other in how many species they can see, with some keen birders staying out from dawn to dusk, he said.

With more than 12,000 volunteers across Canada slated to participate, this year's national count is expected to be one of the largest ever, explained Dick Cannings, the national co-ordinator for the Christmas Bird Count.

For most birders, the event is a must-do during the holiday season, he said.

"It's kind of as much a part of Christmas as the holly and the ivy. It's something that every birder does," Cannings said.

The count serves as an important generator of data on birds in North America, he explained.

"For example, if you want to see what robin numbers are like over the past 20 years in Winnipeg, you can go online and search the numbers seen each year for each species," he said.

Cannings also works with the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. He said the committee will often use Christmas Bird Count data when assessing bird species' status.

"I've used it on several occasions to put species on lists of birds that are threatened -- or endangered, for that matter," he said.

The bird count is a project of the National Audubon Society in the U.S. In Canada it is coordinated by Bird Studies Canada.

As a student in his mid-20s, Hoye said he feels he defies the stereotype of the more seasoned birdwatcher. He got into it after landing a summer job working with marshland birds in 2005. This led to another summer job in field biology in Nova Scotia, where he met his girlfriend, Jessica.

"Birdwatching is sort of what brought us together, and I think it's also one of the reasons that we've stayed together, because it's such an obscure hobby, but something that we both are really passionate about," he said.

Jack Dubois, the former director of wildlife for Manitoba Conservation and a veteran of the Christmas count, said a favourite part for him is the end-of-day tally where birders reveal which species have been seen.

"People will often hold onto the rare stuff for the very end, so it's a bit of a game, and everybody 'oohs' and 'aahs,' 'oh, you really did see such and such?' " he said.

"It sounds a bit silly, but it's just fun to be on the tally and see what other people encountered while you were working hard to count birds in your section."

Last year, more than 3.9 million birds of 303 species were tallied by Christmas count participants across North America.

sarah.petz@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 15, 2012 B1

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