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35th Annual Brackendale Winter Eagle Count takes flight

Fewer volunteers due to COVID-19; and fewer eagles, but local dedication continues, says co-ordinator
Eagle on the Mamquam River last week.

It is easy to say there has never been anything like the 35th Annual Brackendale Winter Eagle Count, which took place on Sunday.

For the first time in its history, organizers had to discourage volunteers from participating, due to the pandemic.

This year, 56 volunteers headed out in heavy rain to count in the approximately 22 zones.

For the 2020 count, there were 101 volunteers.

This meant this time around, there were about two counters per zone, rather than several.

The final tally came in at 848 eagles counted — 680 were adults, 164 were juveniles and four were unclassified, meaning that the counter knew they saw an eagle, but couldn't distinguish the age, according to Katelyn West, Squamish EagleWatch volunteer co-ordinator with the Squamish Environment Society.

The numbers are down from the average of 1,405 eagles spotted, and compared to last year's count of  747.

"Sometimes with raptors and other species of birds you can have these cyclical return events," said West. "We see this sometimes with owls and things like that with migration patterns. So you can take [the lower numbers this year] two ways: you can take it as a cyclical event, where maybe this year was slightly lower compared to last year... Or you can take it from an environmental standpoint, thinking back to 1994 when there was a high of over 3,000 birds. You can take it as a sign of the times as well. It just depends on how you want to look at it."

The last four or five years, the numbers have been pretty stable, she added.

The counters spread out from the main base in Brackendale, down to the estuary, and up as close as a hardy volunteer with a 4X4 vehicle can get to the top of the watershed on the Squamish River.

Volunteers also headed out on rafts to count. 

In addition to eagles, volunteers spotted a  moose, an otter, a barred owl, two blue herons, two swans and two mountain goats.

"The dedication that the community of Brackendale and Squamish has toward this program is really phenomenal," said West, adding that some people she emailed to see if they would help replied immediately that they would count on the route they had done for a decade, without any further prodding. "The dedication by the volunteers was really what makes this all happen."

Veteran eagle counter and birder Judith Vetsch told The Chief the annual count has always had several positive aspects to it.

 "The citizen scientist contribution, but also the social experience," she said.

"The Brackendale Art Gallery has always been the centre for this event. Thor and Dorte Froslev were the main founders and promoters of this annual count, and, for Thor, Brackendale is definitely the Bald Eagle Capital of Canada."

She said she and her husband always went early to the BAG "to feel the excitement, and the warm, convivial atmosphere."

(This year, the usual eagle-related events at the BAG were cancelled due to the pandemic.)

In years past, after the count, Vetsch said she would have the salmon bisque there. "The eagles love salmon, but so do I," she said.

 She also recalled that while local media has always covered the count, for several years a team from CBC Radio-Canada, the francophone public station, accompanied counters.

"Patrick, my husband, is francophone, and his on-site interview was broadcast, usually that same evening, for the francophone community in B.C."

"The Brackendale Annual Bald Eagle Count is a citizen scientist endeavour. It gives to us, the participants, a connection to nature. It helps us realize that all is connected."

She noted that over the years the final counts have become smaller due to diminishing chum and coho salmon returns.

"This has motivated some of the count participants to give time to the Squamish Streamkeepers, a group that monitors the streams and spawning channels. We want to do what we can to assure that Brackendale will always be the Bald Eagle Capital of Canada," she said.

Northern Pygmy-owl
Northern Pygmy-owl - Chris Dale

Christmas Bird Count

~Courtesy Squamish Environment Society

The annual Christmas Bird Count took place Dec. 20, with 24 volunteers.

A total of  74 species were spotted, which is on the high end of average.

Total individual birds counted  — 6,931.

The bird of the day was a western scrub-jay, only the second one ever seen in Squamish.

Some other surprises and good sightings:

Greater white-fronted goose  1

Snow goose   3

Trumpeter swan   1

Pied-billed grebe   3

American kestrel   1

Virginia rail   1

Northern shrike   2

Pygmy owl   1

Rufous hummingbird   1

Grey jay   5

Pine grosbeak   1

Other raptors:

Sharp-shinned hawk   1

Cooper’s hawk   2

Red-tailed hawk   4

Merlin   1

Peregrine falcon    1

Bald eagles   534


Anna’s hummingbird   32    Counters continue to see these birds on during Christmas counts over the last few years.

Common goldeneye   27

Barrow’s goldeneye   9       Both goldeneye species continue to show very low numbers compared to a decade ago.

Eurasian collared dove   19  This species seems to be here to stay.

Completely missing:

Northern Harrier