Chris Siddle scouts the bird feeders as part of the annual Christmas Bird Count.

An introduction to zen and the art of bird watching

January 2 was also the Christmas bird count in Nakusp, and I met up with Chris Siddle to learn how to count birds.

Last Monday was like any other one spent rushing around the office putting the paper to bed, but this time the hustle wasn’t only to get everything ready for print. January 2 was also the Christmas bird count in Nakusp, and I was supposed to be meeting Chris Siddle to learn how to count birds.

After two delays due to last minute news additions, I was finally out the door and into the fresh air on what shaped up to be a gorgeous day. Walking along third avenue, I spied birder Chris Siddle, the man you may have seen wandering the streets of Nakusp last week with a pair of binoculars.

“I look like a perv,” Siddle said jokingly when we met up, “but if anyone asks, I say ‘I’m with Gary’ – no last name – and they know I’m doing the bird count.”

He has already found a treat today in the compost at Spicer’s: a Wilson’s Warbler who has decided that the heat from the decomposing vegetable matter is preferable to Central America this winter.

Birders’ best finds are often found near or even in human wastelands. Siddle related that some of his best birding days were spent near sewage lagoons. In Fort St. John, he saw an amazing 72 species in one hour, and the ironically named “Sweetwater” sewage lagoons in Tucson, Arizona are a hot spot for birders.

“They don’t advertise they’re sewage lagoons,” Siddle said dryly, “but they are.”

Siddle traveled from Vernon to come help with the bird count in Nakusp. Like most visitors, he likes the quiet and the remoteness.

There are too many people and too much traffic in the Okanagan now, he said.

“Too many birders?” I asked.

“That too,” he confirmed, something not unique to the Okanagan. Down at the coast, Siddle had witnessed birdwatchers outnumber the owls they were watching. Some of the “watchers” were so engrossed in their photography that they kept moving in on the birds’ territory and crowding them, a big no-no. That kind of behaviour impacts the birds, and impacts bird watching too, Siddle told me.

He should know. Chris Siddle has been watching our feathered friends for more than 50 years now, and has a vast knowledge of species plumage, history, behaviours, and calls. The retired schoolteacher and Gary Davidson have been friends for years, and also went on the trip to Peru where the focus was definitely birds.

“We didn’t sightsee. We didn’t visit Machu Picchu,” he said, which is why Mrs. Siddle, not an avid birder, didn’t bother going along. The trip was for the birds. Literally.

As we walked down 4th past the campground, a lone bird sang out. Siddle stopped, cocked an ear and made a grade-school kid’s laser-gun shoot-em-up sound.

“It’s called pishing,” Siddle explained, a sound that birders make imitating a bird in distress. Birds in the area come to see what’s happening, so the theory goes, in order to keep an eye on a predator.

I morbidly wondered if the birds coming to the sound of the distress aren’t in it for a quick meal. The “suicide birds,” Pine Siskins, who congregate on the road and play chicken with oncoming cars look like they may be taking advantage of a downed mate who was slower than the rest to get their lunch.

This bird wasn’t interested in the distress call Siddle was putting out and clammed up. Switching strategies, Siddle softly whistled, an imitation of a pygmy owl that brings birds out so they can keep their eye on the predator.

“The pygmy owl they can’t see is a problem,” the seasoned birder said.

Just about then, the bell intoned at NSS, and Siddle’s pygmy owl call succeeded in only attracting teenagers heading home for lunch. In actual fact, they raced past, and couldn’t have cared less about two “old” people whistling by the campground.

Chris Siddle is one of eight bird counters, all volunteers, who paid $5 for the privilege to be part of the count and to get a copy of the results. Different teams cover different areas of the territory around Nakusp, which is large, having a radius of 12 kilometres. Unlike other areas, much of it isn’t accessible by road which makes the task set before the eight watchers achievable in one day.

The area assigned to Siddle that I “helped” with was downtown Nakusp. Bird feeders were the hot territories to visit, but flocks in trees got counted too.

Birding is a new activity for me, so identification wasn’t an option. I could maybe count blobs on a tree, but even that turned out to be not so helpful.

Birds aren’t choosy, it seems, and different species hang out together around feeders, with varying degrees of friendliness. So unless you can tell the difference between a Goldfinch and an American Tree Sparrow, you’re count is going to be wonky.

As we continued tramping through our area, I was learning about bird watching social norms.

“It’s like any hobby with predominantly men,” Siddle said, which meant that there were a lot of socially awkward (“think ‘The Big Bang Theory,’” he said), geekily competitive types. Some avid bird fans are “big year” birders, keen to see record number of species in a year.

“Retired anesthesiologists with a lot of money,” Siddle said, typifying that specific kind of birder, “You know, high achievers.”

For the most part, birders are just people fascinated by the beauty and behaviour of birds. Chatting with Siddle as we walked through downtown Nakusp, I learned about the migrational history of the Eurasian Collared Dove (we saw two), how different species roost together in winter to stay warm, how one species of bird that roosts in snow can move a vein in its leg closer to an artery so the blood warms up before it hits the heart and is circulated around the body, and a lot more besides.

The admiration that this decades-long watcher has extends beyond just birds. Siddle has a deep respect for one of their biggest predators too: the common house cat.

“We’ve taken this extremely efficient predator and put them in smaller and smaller hunting territories,” he said, citing the pet cat population explosion as the biggest threat to birds at feeders.

By the time we are done, the sun is out and it’s early afternoon. I head home for lunch (chicken), and get ready for the big birder meeting at Gary Davidson’s later that afternoon.

When I arrived at the Davidson household, there were already a number of vehicles parked out front.

I first met Richard Johnson who has not only come from New Denver for the bird count in Nakusp but also organized a bird count there as well, and his bird-spotting partner Eric Day.

Inside, there was the festive smell of mulled wine and cooking food; Marie Davidson had put out a magnificent spread for us. Paper snowflakes and other Christmas remnants added to a celebratory feel.

Already ready and waiting with bird counters Gary Davidson and Chris Siddle were Dwayne Foster and Walter Pasieka. Like me, Cecelie Letting didn’t count any birds but also wisely showed up for the final count and the excellent food. Australian exchange teacher Ken Cross joined us, also a keen bird observer.

Conversation was lively, and wits were as sharp as a bird’s beak. Among the jokes I learned that “Pasieka” meant “beekeeper,” that “Siddle” meant a slanting vein of coal and how to extract a goat’s head from a wire fence, but lips were tight on what had been seen that day. There was a bit of ornithological poker going on, with no one wanting to reveal their best bird quite yet.

Pasieka and Foster were lucky enough to see three short-eared owls in Crescent Bay. Day and Johnson eventually found the Belted Kingfisher and Shrike in the Brouse Loop area thanks to help from Davidson, who finished in record time and “poached” all other territories. In his own split-up area, Davidson saw a Merlin and an America Tree Sparrow enjoying the company of five Song Sparrows. Siddle’s highlights included the compost-grubbing Wilson’s Warbler.

A storm of new birds and controversy came with the arrival of Denis Stanley and Kathy Smith, the Glenbank team, who saw a group of Golden-crowned Kinglets “hover gleaning” and more besides. There was a tense moment over whether a spotted bird was more likely a House Wren or a Winter Wren, with the debate to be decided by a return visit.

Watching the bird watchers talking and laughing in the Davidson’s Robin’s egg-blue living room, I knew I’d also been fortunate to spot birds of a feather flocking together that afternoon.