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The Moab Christmas Bird Count

The question often comes up. Why does the biggest birding event in the country take place in early winter? Wouldn’t it make more sense to do it in the spring when the weather is more cooperative and birds more abundant? Possibly the more important question is why would any Moabite leave a warm, snuggly bed to go out on a frosty morning to count birds?

It’s all about a tradition called the Christmas Bird Count. In Moab, that tradition has gone on since 1985 when Jeff Connors, who was the head of Resource Management in Arches, Canyonlands, and Natural Bridges National Parks teamed up with another local biologist, Nelson Bolschen who worked for the Utah Division Of Wildlife Resources. They filed the paperwork with the Audubon Society and set a circle of fifteen miles in diameter which is divided up into sections with the center at Shrimp Rock in the Sand Flats Recreation Area. Ranging in elevation from 4,000 to 7,000 feet, it includes Moab, Castle Valley, Spanish Valley, the River Road (Highway 128), the Matheson Wetlands Preserve, Ken’s Lake and portions of the La Sal Loop Road.

Between December 14th and January 5th, enthusiastic birders across North America participate in the oldest and largest wildlife survey in the world. From dawn to dusk and beyond under the cloak of darkness to listen for owls, 50,000 vigilant birdwatchers in almost 2,000 counting areas spend a long, exhilarating day tracking down birds. It even takes place in the fugid environment of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, lasting just two and a half hours with usually only one bird, the raven, on the list.

This will be the 105th year for the Christmas Bird Count. Combined with the Breeding Bird Survey, it gives a clearer picture of how bird populations have changed since the turn of the 19th century giving a clearer indication of the increases and declines in bird populations across North America.

The date for our local bird count is usually chosen during the November Moab Bird Club meeting. Then, leaders select their count area and recruit a team. No matter what the weather, typically 40 to 50 hearty birdwatchers show up on count day. Approximately 140 miles is covered either by walking or driving. Every single bird that is seen or heard is counted. Participants search out neighborhoods with birdfeeders, wetlands, canyons, riparian areas, the pinyon-juniper habitat and the foothills of the La Sal Mountains.

To understand the origins of the Christmas Bird Count, we have to turn the calendar back over a hundred years to a holiday tradition that was called the Christmas Side-Hunt. Back then, on Christmas Day, participants would choose sides, go afield with guns and whoever slaughtered the most birds and animals won. As horrifying as it seems now, at that time, all wildlife was considered an unlimited resource and towards the end of the nineteenth century, this common attitude had brought many birds to the brink of extinction. Some like the passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet (the only native parakeet in this country) didn’t make it.

In an effort to stop the carnage and educate the public, Frank Chapman, a famed ornithologist and an early officer in the newly formed Audubon Society, started the first ever “Christmas Bird Census.” On Christmas Day, 1900, twenty-seven dedicated birders in twenty-five separate locations from Toronto, Canada to Pacific Grove, CA went out and counted all the birds they saw instead of shooting them. Most of the counts took place in or near the population centers of the northeast. Their list topped out at ninety species with a total of about 18,500 birds. Now, the total goes up into the millions.

But there’s more than tradition for doing a bird count during the dark, cold days of early winter when many birds are still in the late stages of their southward migration. It also opens up the opportumty to see rare northern birds that have wandered into the Moab area, such as northern shrike and rough-legged hawk. Usually the bald eagle, rarely seen in the summer, but a common winter resident along the river corridor, is added to the list. Other prize winning birds are the merlin (a small falcon), goshawk, and the tiny saw-whet owl. Sometimes, a peregrine falcon will pop up adding some extra excitement to the day.

The traditional potluck brunch takes place the following morning. As the morning progresses, the decibel levels increase with everyone bursting to talk about birds, birds, and more birds. Rare birds are savored and bragged about with awe.

After the brunch, everyone settles down to listen to the final species total with the end result usually being around 70. There is a window of three days after the official count to add on to the list allowing die-hard individuals to search high and low for those missing birds.

Besides good food, camaraderie and a contest, this potluck highlights the pride of each member of the birdwatching community in the accomplishment of what they’ve collectively done. Everyone who takes part, including those counting birds at their backyard feeders, does it for the love of birds and the excitement offtiendly competition. Knowing what the Christmas Bird Count has done in the research of bird populations adds a special significance to a very worthwhile week-end.

Families and beginners are welcome, the more eyeballs the better to point out the birds. Early winter is a good time to start a lifelong journey of discovering the mystery and wonder of birds. At that time the numbers are not so overwhelming and without the dense foliage of deciduous trees the birds are easier to find. Birds move around, so there are always some surprises. Often you discover something you didn’t expect, so if you want to add some extra spice to your holiday season, come on out and join the fun.

To be a part of the Moab Christmas Bird Count to be held on December 17th, contact Rick Boretti at 259-4050.

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