“OK, what kind?”
“One Grey-backed, one Pink-sided—oops, there go half a dozen more! Were they Slate-sided?”
“Oh, I can’t tell! Just write down eight Juncos!”
“Over there—that looks like a Bushtit. And another, and… there must be 50 of them in that bush!”
Counting birds isn’t always easy, but that what I did Saturday. I was participating in Audubon’s 114th Christmas Bird Count, something I’ve done off and on for the past ten years, ever since I discovered the joys of birding.
Our Pikes Peak area Audubon chapter tackles the Colorado Springs count, which is centered well south of the current urban area. You can see how the city has grown toward the north and east. What was once open prairie and scrub-oak covered foothills is now paved streets, stores, and row upon row of houses. Our little group was lucky—the section we covered included Palmer Park, a large natural area surrounded by city. Still, the birds we found were mainly those commonly found in a suburban backyard—a bit on the ho hum side.
Primarily, there were pigeons, lots of pigeons. Lined up on telephone wires, covering roofs, flying past in large flocks, pigeons dominated the landscape. Canada Geese were also abundant. Try counting over 200 of them as they hide in the grass, just their heads sticking up, or shuffle around on the ice, taking turns bathing in the one small spot of open water.
Most of the little songbirds turned out to be juncos—rummaging on the ground, sitting in low bushes, and hiding in weedy areas. They’re easy to ID, with their flashing white tail feathers, but Audubon wanted them broken down into subspecies, a much harder task. We found four of the six: Slate-colored, Pink-sided, Gray-headed, and Oregon, and I’m now much faster at telling them apart.
There were the other usual suspects—starlings, House Sparrows, House Finches, Scrub Jays, Spotted Towhees, and robins. Having seen over 200 robins in past years—in the middle of a snowstorm with temperatures in the single digits—I was surprised we only found a few dozen, but there you go. That’s what makes the count interesting year after year.
Early on, we came upon a large juniper that seemed… possessed. Little chip notes emanated from the dense foliage, and we could hear flapping. Then out popped a Bushtit, followed by another Bushtit, and then an entire flock. Attempts to number them proved futile; we all came up with different numbers. If we can have gaggles of geese and murders of crows, I decided that we had just encountered a baffle of Bushtits!
The “best” birds of the day included a number of American Tree Sparrows, Townsend’s Solitaires, and one Sharp-shinned Hawk that dove into a fir tree before I could grab a photo.
A few species were noticeable by their absence. We didn’t see a single Red-tailed Hawk. Not one. No gulls were spotted either—we guessed they were in a neighboring section that had more open water and the city dump.
All in all, it was a fun day, but not in the same way as a “normal” birding trip. In that case, we would have picked an area known to be birdy, not city streets and neighborhoods. Still, I’m happy that we were able to contribute to the huge database that Audubon collects every year. Our results will join thousands of others to give a general picture of the bird populations, both here in North America, and increasingly around the world.
Birds, from top: Western Scrub Jay, American Tree Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco (Gray-headed), Bushtit, Spotted Towhee