Birdwatching, or “birding,” is among Colorado’s most popular outdoor activities during the spring, summer and fall months, but it doesn’t stop during winter.
The Cortez Christmas Bird Count, an annual event that local bird watchers have organized for decades, is scheduled this year for Monday, Dec. 26. Participants will meet at the Cortez Cultural Center in the morning, then split up into teams and drive around the Cortez area until sunset, documenting every species of bird they see. The information they collect will be sent on to the Audubon Society to help them keep track of bird populations in the region.
The Christmas Bird Count has a long history in Colorado and across the country. It’s just one of the ways Cortez residents show their enthusiasm for bird watching every year. Another is the annual Ute Mountain-Mesa Verde Birding Festival. Visitors from as far away as Australia and Hawaii have traveled to Cortez to participate in the festival, which has compiled a list of more than 240 species during the past 12 years. The next festival is tentatively scheduled for May 2017.
Pat Richmond, a longtime Cortez birder, said that depending on the weather, several dozen people usually participate in the Christmas count, with two to four people on a team. It is traditionally held the day after Christmas, which makes organizers hesitant to reschedule for bad weather, but last year a blizzard resulted in a low turnout. Richmond hopes more bird watchers will participate this year, since the count is so valuable to researchers.
“Birding is pretty important to this area,” she said. “We’ve been doing this for a long time.”
In the fall, many Four Corners bird species migrate south, some going as far as Argentina. But Richmond said many species stick around, even when the colder temperatures and snow set in.
Year-round avian residents include the Northern Flicker, Lewis’ Woodpecker, Steller’s or Scrub jays, Spotted Towhee and White-breasted Nuthatch. Dark-eyed Juncos, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches, and Mountain Chickadees descend from alpine habitats into lower elevations, while a species like the Northern Shrike might arrive as a migrant from far northern regions. Robins and bluebirds often take refuge within protective arroyos, canyons and valleys. While some raptors head south for the winter, Golden Eagles, Ferruginous Hawks and Red-tailed Hawks continue to soar over open fields. A Sharp-shinned Hawk might perch near a feeder. Bald Eagles congregate around open water to fish or snag a duck. Winter waterfowl lists can include Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Green-winged Teal, mergansers and a Canvasback. A birder in the right place at the right time might add Pygmy Owl, Gray Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker, Common Redpoll and Snow Geese to a winter list. Sandhill Cranes, headed toward playa wetlands around Wilcox, Arizona, have passed through the Four Corners around Christmas. As in any season, weather patterns influence what species a bird watcher can spot, as well as when and where they’ll appear.
Birding has always been important to this region. The first birding records within the Four Corners area date to the 1880s. While stationed at Fort Lewis on the La Plata River, C.F. Morrison documented the species he observed from mountain elevations to lowland habitats. In the first decade of the 20th century, M.F. Gilman added many Montezuma County species to Colorado’s avian records. In 1900, the Audubon Society launched its first official winter bird count. Known today as the Christmas Bird Count, this annual event provides critical data pertinent to species viability within designated regions. During set hours, teams of birders scour pre-established map segments to count every species and bird observed. Data compiled from searches like the one in Cortez provide insights into the stability of local resident populations, influx of new species, absence of common species and other factors that support an overall understanding of the distribution and well-being of avian populations throughout North America.
Participants in the Cortez Christmas Bird Count should arrive at the Cortez Cultural Center between 7:30 and 7:45 a.m. for team and route assignments. Start time for the Count will be 8 a.m. at the latest. Jason St. Pierre will be the coordinator this year, and will provide all participants with maps of good bird watching locations.
Pat Richmond contributed to this article.