The 2017 Cortez Christmas Bird Count started early Saturday morning with a crowd at the Cultural Center.
Each winter, Cortez area bird watchers spend a day traveling eight designated routes near the town, trying to count every bird and bird species within a 15-mile radius. Audubon uses data collected in these bird counts, which are held annually across the country, to track long-term migration patterns and species health. This year about 30 people participated in the Cortez event, which organizer Jason St. Pierre said was the largest turnout he’d ever seen.
St. Pierre partly credited the warm weather for the large turnout. Temperatures in Cortez had climbed into the 40s by noon on Saturday, and there was no snow on the ground. That makes a big difference, St. Pierre said, for an outdoor event that begins at 7:30 a.m.
“The last two years it’s been really cold in the morning,” he said. “Last year it was 3 degrees when we started.”
He also said he believed changing the date to Saturday, instead of the day after Christmas when it’s usually held, may have made the count more accessible to some people.
Participants split up into several groups and drove all over the Cortez area, stopping frequently to count birds in the trees and fields. Some of the most experienced bird watchers used high-powered scopes and binoculars to spot the birds, and sometimes drew them out by playing recorded bird calls and making imitation bird calls known as “pishes.”
While many participants said they come to the bird count regularly, several experienced it for the first time on Saturday. Neal Wight, who moved to Mancos last year, said he’s been looking for a way to meet fellow birders in the area.
“There’s not a bird club in Cortez, so this is kind of a nice opportunity to meet folks,” he said.
Ken Fortune and Sachi Fukuman, California residents who were visiting Durango for the holidays, said they have participated in the Cortez bird count several times during previous vacations. They also regularly join their hometown’s annual bird count.
“We try to do as many as we can, depending on where we are,” Fortune said. “(Bird watching) is a great avocation. You get to experience nature and get a little closer to it.”
All the results from this year’s bird count likely won’t be available for several days, St. Pierre said. But based on his own group’s observations, he said he believed there would be more ducks and other waterfowl this year than in the past.
“There are more open bodies of water,” he said. “That’s very unusual for this time of year.”
Some of the most numerous birds spotted this year within Cortez city limits included Canada geese, starlings, mallards, song sparrows and red-winged blackbirds. Watchers found some more unusual ones as well, like a wood duck, which is normally more common in the eastern U.S.
After the bird count, each group planned to mail or email their results to St. Pierre, who will collect them for the Audubon Society. So far, other Christmas bird counts around the U.S. have recorded more than 7 million birds this year, according to the Audubon website.