Playing scientist for a day
January 7, 2010
Last Saturday, I spent four hours counting birds during the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count in Granby. I sat in the back seat of the Buttery’s Subaru, my binoculars ready, as Doug drove and his wife, Susie, kept the bird count.
Susie and Doug Buttery work for the National Park Service and have been birders for more than 40 years. I received a bird education while we drove around County Road 60 and Legacy Park, and I got to know two amazing people who are completely passionate about birds and the outdoor lifestyle.
We stopped at the edges of meadow, looking through binoculars for a hopeful bird, any bird. We drove through a 15-minute blizzard on the way to Little HO Ranch, and as blue skies peaked out between clouds we reached the western edge of our counting area on the Colorado River. We were most successful at homes with bird feeders. The Hay family let us into their home to warm up and meet their dogs as we watched their bird feeders and counted chickadees and a very large stellar jay.
The Christmas Bird Count has been an annual event for more than a 100 years around the world. The data collected is the “longest-running wildlife census to assess the health of bird populations – and to help guide conservation action.” (www.Audubon.org)
Susie and Doug told me stories of other bird counts. One year they had their daughter and her friend in the backseat who would yell, “Bird!” Doug would hit the brakes, and Susie would count and record the species. Good ole family fun.
I didn’t grow up with an outdoor education. I avoided all science classes in college. However, my mother worked at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island located off the Massachusetts coast. She would tell stories about sightings in the refuge including eagles, egrets and piping plovers.
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When I lived in northwestern Maine, I often hiked with my friend Brad. He loved to stop and look for wildflowers and birds on these hikes; it drove me crazy. I just wanted to get to the mountain peak and get in a workout. However, I never forgot the flower he showed me: purple and white trillium.
I am still learning to reconcile my philosophy on outdoor activities. Do I ski, hike and run for exercise or to be outside observing the natural world? It’s tough doing both well.
Bird counting is a perfect way to slow down and just observe.
During the bird count, we saw ravens, stellar jays, mountain chickadees, black-capped chickadees, a woodpecker, and white-breasted nuthatch; all resident birds. We also counted rosy finches, a migratory bird. All told, we encountered 10 different species.
Brock McCormick, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service, organized the bird count. After the event he told me some of the other migratory birds that are found in the county: northern shrike and rough-legged hawk. Summer migrant birds in Grand County include hummingbirds, hawks, and songbirds.
Brock says that the bird count measures the local ecosystem health as our environment changes due to development, beetle kill, logging, and recreation.
I felt like a scientist for a day; watching these birds through binoculars while Doug and Susie named them. After they dropped me off at my car, I immediate drove to Ace Hardware and bought a bird feeder. Within two days, I could name the black-capped chickadees visiting my feeder. I can’t wait for next year’s bird count and contributing to what the Audubon Society calls “citizen science”.
I also still need constant reminders to slow down, look, and listen. Birding is a great way to stay in the moment. When I told Brad I bought a bird feeder he said, “Welcome to the bird nerd world.”
2010 Christmas Bird Counting Results: 1725 individuals, 36 species, 40 volunteers.