Mike Bentley rarely leaves home without his binoculars.

Fernie Nature Club preparing for annual Christmas Bird Count

The annual event is the longest-running citizen science survey in the world.

By Ezra Black

Mike Bentley rarely leaves home without his binoculars.

But the amateur ornithologist didn’t need them that one fateful day a few years ago when he saw a bird that’s rarely seen west of the continental divide.

“I was sitting in my backyard and I looked down and there was a bird I’d never seen before, ever,” said Bentley. “This thing had got blown across I guess. It was sitting there looking up at me. It was so distinct.”

It was a lark bunting, said Bentley, which is a medium-sized sparrow common on the prairies.

“What are you doing here?” he reportedly asked the bird. “You’re not supposed to be here. You’re on the wrong side of the continental divide.”

Bentley, Fernie Nature Club spokesperson, is asking other citizens with a passion for birds to join him and his organization for the 117th annual Christmas Bird Count, the longest-running citizen science survey in the world.

Birders in Fernie will be taking part in the count on Dec. 15. Volunteers are being asked to meet at “Kim and Ron’s house,” 962 – 10th Avenue at 8:30 a.m.

Armed with binoculars, bird guides and checklists, the citizen scientists who annually brave the elements to take part in the event will be split into groups and sent to different parts of the valley to count birds.

They’ll be joining other naturalists in Cranbrook, Kimberley and Fernie and tens of thousands of volunteers throughout the Americas to take part in the annual mission.

Fernie’s first Christmas Bird Count occurred in 2005. That year they spotted about 40 species and almost 2700 individual birds. The overwhelming number of them were Bohemian waxwings but they also spotted 116 black-capped chickadees, one brown creeper, a pileated woodpecker plus mallards, dippers and grouse.

The National Audubon Society and other organizations use data collected in the wildlife census to assess the health of bird populations and to help guide conservation action.

“We do this so there’s some kind of record so that over time we can see whether we’re losing species or gaining species. Over decades, we can see what the birds are actually doing,” said Bentley. “It’s what some people call citizen science. You could never hire scientists to do this sort of thing because it would cost too much.”

The information on the numbers of birds and species from this count will be entered into a database, which is used by many organizations studying population trends.

Fernie’s location between the prairies and the west coast areas is important for providing valuable information on what is happening in the bird world, said Bentley.

Those who cannot make the event can still participate by counting birds in their own backyards during the three days before and after the occasion. Such birds will be recorded as “species being present,” said Bentley.

The Nature Club would also like to start collecting 2017 fees for the organization and for B.C. Nature. The family rate is $25 and the single rate is $20.