Fewer birds were spotted during this winter’s annual bird count, a possible side effect of drought and the 416 Fire, but researchers say it’s too soon to draw conclusions.
“The number of birds were definitely down,” said John Bregar, a member of the Durango Bird Club. “There was some discussion as to why, but it’s all speculation. We really don’t know.”
Since 1949, the National Audubon Society has hosted an annual Christmas Bird Count in Durango, in which volunteers are asked to record every species of bird spotted in a 7.5-mile radius around Pastorius Reservoir within a 24-hour period.
A number of factors can affect the amount of birds and the number of species spotted during the count, including weather, migration habits and even how many volunteers participate to help spot the feathered creatures.
For reference, 2017 was seen as a good year for the bird count, with volunteers finding 85 species and 7,452 individual birds.
This winter, the count, which was conducted Dec. 16, found a strong number of diverse species – 82 – but the number of individual birds was down to about 6,732.
For comparison, there were 38 volunteers in 2017 and 35 volunteers this past December.
Part of the benefit of the bird counts, which occur countrywide, is that once all the counts across the U.S. are finished, researchers can look at the data and look for trends on how birds are behaving and migrating, Bregar said.
In this case, analyzing the data might help understand why fewer birds were spotted this December in Durango.
“It’s possible if we look at Grand Junction or southern Wyoming, we’d see they were having higher counts,” Bregar said. “Which would lead us to believe the birds haven’t made it down here yet.”
The low count, however, has bird lovers in Southwest Colorado speculating whether the intense drought the region has been experiencing has affected bird populations.
Calls to ornithologists at Fort Lewis College and Colorado State University were not returned for this story.
An avian researcher with Colorado Parks and Wildlife wrote in an email that the Christmas Bird Count was developed to look at long-term trends in bird numbers across a large landscape, and that conclusions can’t be drawn from a single-year count in one location.
“Christmas Bird Counts tend to be pretty variable in terms of numbers of birds and species counts,” the CPW staffer wrote. “Drought could be an issue; but long-term data would be needed to develop any plausible explanation.”
Bregar speculated the drought caused grasses and small plants to not produce as many seeds, so there wasn’t as much available food for birds in the region.
Also, one main topic of conversation after analyzing the local count was if the 416 Fire, which ripped through an estimated 54,000 acres of the San Juan National Forest north of Durango this past summer, had any impact on bird populations.
According to the Audubon Society, when wildfire breaks out, birds flee and find other places to nest. Fires can be healthy for bird habitat and regenerate it in long term, but in the immediate future, this might explain a decrease in the amount of birds spotted in December.
“But again, at this point, it’s all a matter of speculation,” Bregar said.
Bird-watchers were able to spot some new species this year not seen previously in the nearly 70 years the event has been held.
The acorn woodpecker. Bregar said there’s only one known colony of the acorn woodpecker in Colorado, and that’s up by the Rafter J subdivision southwest of Durango, but outside the count’s radius area. This bird must have strayed from the group, he said.The ring-billed gull, an ordinary seagull that’s typically not spotted this far inland, especially in the winter.An eastern blue bird, spotted by the Animas Air Park.The green-tailed towhee, a small sparrow-type bird.Also, though overall numbers were down, some bird species showed up in high numbers not usually seen during the count.
Three hermit thrushes, the highest ever recorded during the count.Five canyon wrens, which sometimes are never spotted during the winter count.512 American wigeons, a species of duck, found in high numbers this year at Pastorius Reservoir, likely because the body of water was mostly drained this past fall to remove invasive firstname.lastname@example.org