Santa's work may have been completed on Christmas Eve, but for Montezuma County birders it was Dec. 26 that offered an opportunity for making a list and checking it twice.
Despite a fresh layer of snow on the ground and frigid temperatures, 12 volunteers gathered at the Cortez Cultural Center last Wednesday to participate in the National Audubon Society's 113th Christmas Bird Count. The goal of the day was simple, albeit ambitious: count all the avian creatures visible in a 15-mile diameter circle centered on Totten Lake.
Local count organizer Carolyn Gunn met with volunteers to explain the purpose of the count and hand out route maps. She stressed the amateur nature of the count and the safeguards in place to protect against errors.
"The beauty of this count is it is built for amateurs," she said. "Every year we collect data and after decades any inaccuracies become such a small percentage of the total count they are basically weeded out. All the data is useful."
Volunteers went out from the cultural center in groups of at least two, headed to their destinations armed with bird books, binoculars, spotting scopes and lists of species observed in the area in past counts. Rather than relying on a simple tally of birds, the annual count compiles data of species spotted in a particular region. With numbers coming in from across North and South America, a century's worth of data provides a fairly solid picture of changes in migration patterns and species in any given area.
"(The National Audubon Society) has collected just tons of data over the years," Gunn said in a phone interview on Dec. 27. "This count is considered a valid reference to use when you are considering whether or not a bird species is in decline or holding its own or even increasing in numbers. It is a very good way of tracking birds."
The count is held anywhere from Dec. 14 through Jan. 5, allowing for consistency in data regarding specific species. According to the National Audubon Society's website, "the data collected by observers over the past century allow researchers, conservation biologist, and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations."
The data gathered during the Christmas bird counts is compiled by the national organization and released in an annual report each September.
The count originated at the turn of the 20th century with what was called the Christmas "Side Hunt." People would choose sides, grab their favorite firearm and bring back to the table as many birds as they could bag. Over time, concern over conservation prompted avian enthusiasts to leave the guns at home and instead track the feathered friends with paper and pen.
"People would try to kill as many birds as they possibly could and then they tallied those numbers and that was supposed to be a good thing," Gunn said. "One hundred years ago that was the accepted thing, the idea that we need to kill birds to learn about them. Then, there came the realization that highly populated bird species were declining and we really needed to know what these birds were doing instead of shooting them. So people went out to count them instead of kill them."
That doesn't mean, however, that the sporting aspects or the joy has been taken from the annual count.
Local bird enthusiasts Lew Matis and Lynn Dyer took their job seriously the day after Christmas, heading to Hawkins Preserve to find as many birds as possible. Dyer has participated in the bird count for over 20 years, and Matis for at least 15. The two set up a spotting scope and went to work.
"It's outdoors and it is nature," Dyer said. "It is great to be able to be part of determining what is happening with our local populations."
Matis said he has always considered himself an environmentalist and the bird count affords an opportunity to be part of the science of the environment.
The two took their time looking for birds, and though the local preserve seemed an ideal location, only a few starlings, a junco, two sparrows and a Cooper's hawk were sighted. The two were somewhat disappointed as they packed up their gear, but expressed optimism that the next site may be home to numerous species, and perhaps even a rare sighting.
"It is a good challenge," Dyer said. "You don't always find them in the same place. If you keep looking, though, you always find them."
The records of the annual Cortez Christmas bird count are on file at the Cortez Public Library.