Once again, it’s time for Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count (CBC). And once again, I was out with some friends (right), surveying our section of the Colorado Springs count area. Part of our route just involved driving slowly through residential neighborhoods. Other times we parked the car and hiked through various segments of Palmer Park, a large natural area of Ponderosas, yucca and grasses in the middle of town.
This being Colorado, the weather is just a tad unpredictable. A few years ago we were dealing with temperatures that reached all of 6 degrees and heavy snowfall that created near-whiteout conditions. We kept expecting to encounter a penguin or two. This year the weather was lovely—sunny and relatively warm (with a high of 50 degrees). After our recent cold spell, it seemed almost tropical… so we weren’t too surprised to see a pair of flamingos, all decked out for the holidays.
One reason I participate in the CBC year after year is that you never know what to expect. The year of the blizzard we counted hundreds of robins. This year, we were surprised by several dozen Townsend’s Solitaires. While not a rare bird, they’re usually not that abundant in our part of the world. We also encountered a flock of 30 or so Bushtits (below), searching for any insects that might have been roused by the unseasonably warm weather.
Of course there were plenty of House Finches, House Sparrows, Rock Pigeons, and other urban birds. But even after spending several hours hiking through Palmer Park, a large natural area in the middle of town, we only tallied two American Tree Sparrows and a mere handful of Juncos. No Chipping Sparrows. No White-crowned Sparrows. Where was everybody?
At one point we came across two pairs of House Sparrows fighting over a prime nest site in a tree cavity. Here it is December, the males weren’t even dressed for the ladies yet, and they’re already planning for their next family!
Another part of the adventure is all the people we meet along the way. Some seem genuinely interested in what we’re doing carrying binoculars and notebooks, peering at all the bushes. Others become quite alarmed, deciding that we must be casing their property. (It is perfectly legal to view private property from a public street or sidewalk.) One minute we’re being yelled at, and the next we’re being praised for our altruism.
By the end of the day, we hadn’t see any truly exceptional birds. Red-tailed Hawks, Canada Geese, a few American Goldfinches in their drab winter wear—they’re all birds we’ve seen many times before.
But the purpose of the bird count isn’t to see rarities, although we’d certainly welcome one. It’s being one tiny piece of a continent-wide puzzle. How are the birds doing? Which species are showing dramatic and worrisome declines? Past counts have indicated that Evening Grosbeaks have suffered substantial losses in the past decade. Which species are increasing in numbers or territory? In the last few decades, Eurasian Collared Doves have spread from one spot in the Bahamas all the way to Alaska.
When combined with data from counters all over North America (and beyond), our numbers alert ornithologists and other scientists to overall trends, allowing them to keep policy makers informed and up to date.
So what if we didn’t see any noteworthy strays. I got some fresh air and exercise, I spent the day looking for birds with people I like, and I used my skills in a worthwhile cause.
Christmas Bird Counts will continue into early January. If you haven’t already signed up or participated, there’s still time to get involved. It’s a great tradition to add to the season.