A blue-bird Colorado sky provided apropo conditions for the annual Cortez Audubon Christmas bird count on Dec. 26.
Two dozen bird-watchers, from novice to expert, gathered in the early morning chill to receive orders on where to go and count birds.
Regulars Lynn Dyer, Lew Matis, Deb Gardner, Peter Robinson, Ben Robinson, Fred Bird and this reporter piled into two vehicles and set off to survey an area including Cortez parks, Denny Lake, Road H, and McElmo Canyon.
“We’re a group of citizen scientists who love birds,” was the simple answer Gardner gave as the reason for volunteering.
At Centennial Park the group spotted a pair of male wood ducks with their neon green and blue colors, black and burgundy patterns, red eyes and distinct “helmet head” appearance.
“Really beautiful, and not very common here,” Dyer says. “It is amazing what you can see if you stop and take a closer look at the usual mallard duck gathering in the park.”
Seventeen wigeons are recorded, and hundreds of geese and mallards are marked down, as well.
In communities across the country, a winter bird count takes place in December or January to calculate resident, nonmigrating bird populations.
“The data is useful to determine trends and to document birds in a particular region,” said coordinator Carolyn Gunn. “Our area has diverse habitat for birds and we have a stable population of a variety of species.”
The Cortez bird count has been ongoing for 30 years, but its informal approach changed five years ago when Gunn began organizing the event to the stricter standards of the Audubon Society.
Now the collected data from seven local sectors goes to Audubon experts who record the information, verify unique sightings, and enter it all into a national database.
“For 100 years, Audubon has been recording bird populations in North America, and we contribute our part year after year,” Gunn said. “Over time the data becomes very useful.”
Another nice highlight this year was a Merlin falcon, a fierce hunter that uses surprise attacks to bring down small songbirds and shore birds. It was spotted on a pole north of Cortez.
A memorable sighting a few years ago was of sand-hill cranes winging it over the Mancos Valley.
Teamwork is a big component of the bird count, evident at Denny Lake. Guide books are scanned as birders with scopes and binoculars shout out features: A white eye patch! Round or half-crescent? Bars on the wings! Thick or skinny? Its a bufflehead, or a golden eye, or a shoveler.
At “Nielson’s Pond” off Road H, bald eagles are recorded, red-tailed hawks make an appearance, along with the ubiquitous starlings, crows, flickers, and ravens. Kestrels monitor their surroundings from telephone wires, and bird feeders attract a meadowlark and Townsend solitaire.
Fred Bird is a hunter with a keen eye and wild-game knowledge.
“The fish-eating ducks don’t taste as good,” he says of a hooded merganser diving in a pond. “It’s fortunate that we still have native birds, and in the spring the migrating neotropical birds in the area are really interesting.”
Matis is enjoying the mild day, recalling “horrifically miserable” conditions in past years. Like author Ed Abbey, he jokes that his favorite birds are “the turkey buzzard, fried chicken, and rosy-breasted skinny dipper.”
A feature of birders is sudden veering to the shoulder and slow driving, perplexing to other drivers in their typical annoyed rush to nowhere.
Signs on the backs of vehicles that read “Caution: Bird Count in Progress” might be helpful, Robinson says.
Birding is an addicting hobby that is very convenient and rewarding. Using binoculars to view up-close a typical geese flock landing is more mesmerizing than you might imagine. Pulling over to glass a nearby hawk hunting from a tree perch is a glimpse into another world of predator and prey, a secret wilderness in plain sight.
“Once you get started and learn something, you can’t help to notice more,” Gardner said. “There is something really special about it.”
Got to birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count for more information.
More volunteers are needed for the annual Christmas bird count. The task includes preparations in the weeks before the event, coordinating a large group the day of the count. and then data entry in the weeks after. Call Carolyn if you are interested or need more information at (970) 882-7742.