Despite the sting of graupel on exposed cheeks, a dedicated flock of birders, toting binoculars, spotting scopes and dressed in layers, hit all corners of the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area Saturday for the 2017 Kane Christmas Bird Count.
After last year’s count was canceled due to inclement weather, the group was giddy. Like kids in the early hours of Christmas morning, all were eager to find what feathered gifts awaited them.
“Last year, we got snowed out, the weather was so bad,” said Neil Miller, a former teacher in Burlington and co-organizer of the count.
Snow once again threatened to stall the efforts, but not enough to stop determined area birdwatchers. For the past few years, interest in the event has been growing.
“Some years we’ve only had five or six [people], but for the last few years we’ve had a really good crowd,” Miller said.
Groups were assigned areas to observe and were equipped with official checklists to collect data. Once in the field, numerous rough-legged hawks patrolled the skies, pausing on wires and in the tops of trees. Ravens mobbed a golden eagle in the distance, the chase obscured in the gray, snowy sky.
An inquisitive marsh wren greeted Paul and Virginia DuBowy as they walked between ponds in the Yellowtail Wildlife Habitat Management Area — almost 20,000 acres of wetlands south of Horseshoe Bend. The area is part of the national recreation area but managed by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. The falling snow gathered in Paul’s beard, giving him that jolly “Santa” look. He’s a retired ornithologist and Virginia is the chief of resources at Bighorn Canyon.
“For waterfowl and upland game species, this is prime habitat. We do our best to manage for invasive plant species to keep it amenable for the bird species,” Virginia said. “This whole habitat is immensely important to wildlife.”
They quickly counted nine species of birds — some seen and others only heard. A rooster pheasant cackled in the distance, but never showed its face. This year’s count was low due to the weather. At the end of the day slightly more than 7,700 individual birds were documented, representing 46 species. For comparison, more than 22,000 individuals were counted in 2015. And the average, with fewer counters typically in attendance, is about 11,000.
As the couple hiked through the crunchy snow, Ranger, their German shorthair, sprinted through tall grasses and past cattails. The DuBowys have been together for 38 years, working and birding throughout the country. While Virginia works at the recreation area, Paul watches birds in the area almost every day. Wyoming is a tougher birding state than many in which the couple has lived, he said.
“We had more birds in our backyard in Mississippi than we’ll see in today’s bird count,” he said.
The count is part of a national effort, a 117-year-old survey that replaced an old-world tradition.
In the 19th century, many hunters engaged in a tradition known as the Christmas “Side Hunt.” They would pick teams and head out with weapons, shooting any and every wild thing that moved. Disturbed by the indiscriminate spree, scientists and conservationists concerned with declining bird populations began to speak out, according to the Audubon Society website.
On Christmas Day 1900, ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, an early officer for the Society, proposed a Christmas bird census as a new, conservation-minded tradition. Now, tens of thousands of volunteers throughout the Americas brave the weather and take part. The Audubon Society uses the count data to assess the health of bird populations and to help guide policy.
“It’s important to have a good count of the species we have in the park. If we’re monitoring that, we can see if new species are coming in or if our usual species aren’t being seen,” said Christy Fleming, the chief interpretive ranger for Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area. “This habitat is an amazing place to see birds.”