Wildlife News


The Crowsnest Pass attracts birds of prey -- and birders -- for the fall migration

Early in the morning of Aug. 25, Peter Sherrington drove from his house in Beaver Mines, a hamlet of about 50 residents, to the Crowsnest Pass 40 minutes away. He hiked up to a windy ridge at 1,900 metres and began studying the partly cloudy sky. Just before 1 p.m., his vigilance was rewarded as he spotted a ferruginous hawk, and seven minutes later, a juvenile golden eagle.

The 2008 Piitaistakis-South Livingstone Raptor Watch was officially underway.

The site -- the principal location for the count since 2006 -- has established itself as the world's most important location from which to witness the annual migration of golden eagles travelling one of two routes from their breeding grounds in Alaska and the Yukon to their winter haunts in Mexico, Texas, Utah and Nevada.
Peter Sherrington hunts for golden eagles high on a ridge at the southern end of the Livingstone Range near Frank in Crowsnest Pass on Tuesday. He counts the eagles on the migration to southern climates at this time of year.View Larger Image View Larger Image
Peter Sherrington hunts for golden eagles high on a ridge at the southern end of the Livingstone Range near Frank in Crowsnest Pass on Tuesday. He counts the eagles on the migration to southern climates at this time of year.

"It was a good start. I saw two migratory birds -- enough to justify going out, but not so many that I felt I should have been out earlier," Sherrington comments.

In fact, that date was the earliest in the 17 years that Sherrington has led the annual golden eagle count that he had spotted one of the splendid birds of prey. Returning to the site daily since, he's diligently recorded not just golden eagles but owls, finches and even elk.

"It's quite a low-tech operation," Sherrington admits. "We rely on good old-fashioned observation. I just go to the top of a hill and I record everything that comes by -- every bird, bird of prey, every mammal, every human visitor as well."

Sherrington's focus however, is golden eagles. Prior to setting up the binoculars in the Crowsnest, the principal count took place near Mount Lorette in Kananaskis Country. While their first visit to Piitaistakis-South Livingstone site yielded fewer birds than a concurrent count at the Kananaskis site, the Crowsnest numbers rose considerably in 2007.

"Last year, we hit the jackpot," Sherrington says. "In 2006, we counted 4,400 golden eagles at the Piitaistakis-South Livingstone site. Last fall, we had 5,445 birds. It was pretty impressive."

Overall, the 2007 count recorded 8,300 migratory birds of prey representing 18 species, a record for Western Canada.

So far, 2008 is off to a good start. Just past the one-third mark, the total count stands at 16,139 birds from 90 species, compared to the 2007 total of 32,000 from 98 species.

"The counts include a lot of rare birds as well," Sherrington said. "Since we've been at this site, we've seen 15 new species that haven't been seen in the Crowsnest before. Some you wouldn't expect to see at that elevation -- they're not birds of the mountains. We actually know very little about our own environment. Nobody's ever looked."

Except, perhaps, Peter Sherrington.

A geologist and palaeontologist who spent 20 years conducting research for Calgary's oil industry, he discovered the eagle migration during a routine bird count. Since 1992, he's led the annual count, with his personal efforts accounting for 80 per cent of the total 2,606 days spent at the principal site through those years, for an average of 10.5 hours per day.

He's studied birds in the Arctic, boreal forest and Prairie, published international papers and worked as a consultant. When asked if he's retired, he laughs.

"For someone who works 200 days a year for up to 15 hours a day, I'm retired." He shrugs. "I've been seriously interested in birds for 40 years, especially about what birds can tell us about the environment.

"Their breeding habits are very specific to habitat, and they're very sensitive to disturbance. Any changes to the environment will show up quickly in a predator."

A perfect example he points out, was how peregrine falcons led to the banning of the chemical DDT.

The key to successful studies is continuity and context, he says, acquired through long-term observations.

"Once I found these eagles, I decided I wanted to study them," he explains. "It actually gets more interesting the more you do it. You have no idea every day what you might get. You're continuously delighted and surprised."

Those surprises and delights have ranged from sighting a rare butterfly to meeting a cougar's steely blue eyes face-to-face before the cougar moved on, an experience he considers "a real privilege -- a wonderful experience.

"In our society we hop about from one place to another like grasshoppers," Sherrington says. "This is truth on a broader, more philosophical level. In nature you never see the same thing twice. Nothing is more fascinating, stimulating or insightful."

To learn more, visit eaglewatch.ca.

LINK TO ARTICLE: http://www.canada.com/calgaryherald/new ... e7ab55da30

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