The Christmas Bird Count: Connecting to our ever changing natural world

The Christmas Bird Count: Evening Grosbeak Courtesy US FWS George Gentry, Photographer
Evening Grosbeak
Courtesy US FWS
George Gentry, Photographer
My boots crunch loudly on the snow and we pause frequently to uncover a bundled-up ear from hats and hoods to listen. We are listening for birds like the high-pitched call of a cedar waxwing, clear trilling song of a ruby-crowned kinglet, or the incessant sounds of the red-breasted nut-hatch. The bright light from the rising winter sun sparkles brilliantly on the snow, which marks the start of a full day of birding ahead in the dead of winter. I, along with many others, make these winter birding treks annually to collect data for the Christmas Bird Count, which is the longest running community science project. This count began in 1900 as an effort by an Ornithologist, Frank M. Chapman, to start a new holiday tradition to encourage people to look at birds instead of hunt them. Fast forward to 121 years later and we are still collecting data instead of dinners. The first count in the State of Utah started not long after in Provo in 1903 with many other places following suit across the state as the years went on.

The rules are simple; count all of the birds both seen and heard within a designated 15-mile diameter area over the entire day of the count which must be sometime between 14 December and 5 January. The result of these local and national counts now equates to a treasure trove of data. Every year since 1956 when the count started in Cache Valley, we observe around 90 species, though weather permitting we can see upwards of 100 species.

Data from these counts are valuable in documenting species like the Evening Grosbeak, a large vibrantly yellow-colored finch which migrates in large flocks. In the early days of the Christmas Bird Count, Evening Grosbeaks would migrate south in large numbers every few years from the Boreal Forests of Canada and the Northern U.S., to the point that they were observed in over 50% of the Christmas Bird counts across the U.S. In the late 1980’s however, their population size and ranges suddenly decreased drastically. In our data from the Cache Valley Christmas Bird Count we see this trend echoed with just 3 Evening Grosbeak observed in 1980 jumping to 119 seen the following year. That record was broken again though 2 years later and then shattered in 1987 with 721 Evening Grosbeaks seen on the single count date. The very next year the numbers plummeted with only 5 individuals seen. Numbers have since remained low until 2017 when we saw 282 Evening Grosbeaks. One theory about these dramatic fluctuations in population size and ranges is thought that it mirrors the abundance of their prey, spruce budworms. It is also hypothesized that deforestation and climate change play a role in these fluctuations of their population as well as their prey.

Observing these species and increasing this treasure of data is important for painting a picture of species movement and in addition, how species are responding to a changing climate locally and globally like the Evening Grosbeak. This massive data collection cannot be achieved by only scientists however, the participation of community members, like you and me, is necessary for not only the collection of more accurate data, but also for opening our own eyes to the natural world around us and getting to know the space that we occupy. Birding is a great way to connect to the outdoors and the Christmas Bird Count is the perfect excuse to get outside, especially this winter. Participation can be as simple as watching out your own window, joining a caravan, in separate vehicles this year to maintain social distance, or trekking through the snowy mountains from sunup to sun down. Visit Audubon.org to find a Christmas Bird Count near you to join this historic count.

I am Makenna Johnson with the Bridgerland Audubon Society and I am Wild About Utah!

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy US FWS George Gentry, Photographer
Audio:
Text: Makenna Johnson, Bridgerland Audubon Society and Graduate Student, Quiney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University
Additional Links: Makenna Johnson and Lyle Bingham, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading

Info on Evening Grosbeaks received from:
Evening Grosbeaks, Bird Watching Daily, https://www.birdwatchingdaily.com/news/species-profiles/species-profile-evening-grosbeak/
Evening Grosbeaks, All About Birds, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Evening_Grosbeak/id

Check to see if you live within the count circle, then sign up to count today: Bridgerland Audubon Society, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/

Greene, Jack, Christmas Bird Count 2019, Wild About Utah, December 9, 2019, https://wildaboututah.org/christmas-bird-count-2019/

Greene, Jack, Cache Valley Christmas Bird Count (CBC) and Climate Change, Wild About Utah, December 11, 2017, https://wildaboututah.org/cache-valley-christmas-bird-count-cbc-climate-change/

Liberatore, Andrea, Ruffed Grouse and the Christmas Bird Count, Wild About Utah, December 8, 2014, https://wildaboututah.org/ruffed-grouse-christmas-bird-count/

Cane, James, Kervin, Linda, The Christmas Bird Count, Wild About Utah, December 9, 2010, https://wildaboututah.org/christmas-bird-count/

Kervin, Linda, The Christmas Bird Count, Wild About Utah, December 16, 2008, https://wildaboututah.org/the-christmas-bird-count/

Greene, Jack, Climate Change and the Christmas Bird Count, Wild About Utah, December 12, 2008, https://wildaboututah.org/climate-change-and-the-christmast-bird-count/

Ron Hellstern

Ron Hellstern Contributor to Wild About Utah
Ron Hellstern
Contributor to Wild About Utah
A mighty tree has fallen- but its seed has been cast far and wide through his great works. I speak of a frequent Wild About Utah contributor, educator, and conservationist. On January 3rd, 2020, Ron Hellstern left us for the great beyond. He was the personification of Wild About Utah.

Ron’s legacy can be found in the thousands of youth who accompanied him in the classroom and field where they participated in many citizen science projects for birds, butterflies, countless tree plantings, restoring streamside environments, and competing in the Utah Envirothon, which Ron helped establish in Utah

He preferred the title “Redrock Ron” which Ron earned from his unflagging love for Utah’s red rock country, culminating with Zion N.P. His contributions there were many- writing curriculum for the park, Christmas bird counts, assisting with the state Envirothon competition which he convinced Zion to host, and much more. His greatest thrill were the many family hikes and campouts he reveled in, to have those near and dear with him to partake of its splendors.

Closer to home, Ron was synonymous with monarch butterflies, fireflies, and reforestation. He spent many years with students and others hatching, tagging, and releasing monarchs to help map their western migration patterns, adding new information to assist with their preservation. Ron was a relentless advocate for planting milkweed, the host plant for rearing the monarch’s chrysalis and caterpillars.

Once he discovered fireflies in a city marsh, Ron realized this rarity needed protection. As both a city council member and citizen, he convinced the city of their unique importance. The Nibley firefly park was the result. A few thousand folks showed up for its inauguration.

And “Trees are the answer” from Ron’s perspective. His plantings were notorious throughout our valley- from school grounds to open lots, his town recognized as a Tree City USA. Ron deeply appreciated all that trees provide for people, wildlife, protecting soil and our mountains watersheds. It seemed that whenever I visited Ron, he was planting yet another tree.

Ron was instrumental in establishing the first “Childrens Forest” with the USFS in Logan Canyon. He was the primary force behind his town of Nibley receiving Utah’s first, and yet only, designation as a Wildlife Friendly City through the National Wildlife Foundation.

As a member and major contributor to the Utah Society for Envioronmental Education and North American Association for EE, Ron’s influence as an extraordinary educator was recognized. He served on both boards where his influence was felt forming policy and programs on a state and international level. Ron was a relentless champion of classroom teachers in both of these acclaimed organizations.

Ron was a kindred spirit, the brother I never had. His presence will never leave me- every tree, monarch butterfly, firefly, trip to redrock country, Ron will be with me.

This is Jack Greene in behalf of our dear friend- Ron Hellstern

Ron Hellstern-Credits:

Images: Courtesy Morgan Pratt for Ron Hellstern
Audio: Contains Audio Courtesy and Copyright Kevin Colver
Text:     Jack Greene, USU and Bridgerland Audubon Society

Ron Hellstern-Additional Reading:

Ron Hellstern Obituary, HJ News, Legacy, https://www.legacy.com/obituaries/name/ronald-hellstern-obituary?pid=194911386

Ron Hellstern Author Page, Wild About Utah, https://wildaboututah.org/author/ron-hellstern/

Ron Hellstern’s Pieces on Wild About Utah:

2019

Christmas Trees, Wild About Utah, Nov 25, 2019, https://wildaboututah.org/christmas-trees/

More From The Hidden Life of Trees, Wild About Utah, September 30, 2019, https://wildaboututah.org/more-from-the-hidden-life-of-trees/

The Hidden Life of Trees, Wild About Utah, August 26, 2019, https://wildaboututah.org/the-hidden-life-of-trees/

The Colorado Plateau, Wild About Utah, July 22, 2019, https://wildaboututah.org/the-colorado-plateau/

Living in snake country – six things to consider, Wild About Utah, July 1, 2019, https://wildaboututah.org/living-in-snake-country/

Hungry Hummingbirds, Wild About Utah, May 27, 2019, https://wildaboututah.org/hungry-hummingbirds/

Lawn Reduction, Wild About Utah, April 22, 2019, https://wildaboututah.org/lawn-reduction/

Silent Spring Revisited, Wild About Utah, March 25, 2019, https://wildaboututah.org/silent-spring/

Seventh Generation, Wild About Utah, February 4, 2019, https://wildaboututah.org/seventh-generation/

Ron Describes Exotic Invasive Species, Wild About Utah, January 21, 2019, https://wildaboututah.org/ron-describes-exotic-invasive-species/

2018

Winter Bird Feeding, Wild About Utah, December 31, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/winter-bird-feeding/

Ron Imagines a World Without Trees, Wild About Utah, December 24, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/ron-imagines-a-world-without-trees/

Bird Feeding in Winter, Wild About Utah, November 26, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/bird-feeding-in-winter/

Composting, Wild About Utah, October 29, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/composting/

Wildfires, Wild About Utah, October 8, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/wildfires/

Invasive Species, Wild About Utah, September 24, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/invasive-species/

Migration, Wild About Utah, September 24, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/migration/

Exotic Invasive Species, Wild About Utah, September 17, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/exotic-invasive-species/

Incredible Hummingbirds, Wild About Utah, August 27, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/incredible-hummingbirds/

Leave it to Beaver, Wild About Utah, July 30, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/leave-it-to-beaver/

Keep Utah Clean, Wild About Utah, July 23, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/keep-utah-clean/

Knowing Trees, Wild About Utah, June 25, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/knowing-trees/

Attracting Birds and Butterflies to Your Yard, Wild About Utah, May 28, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/attracting-birds-and-butterflies-to-your-yard/

Poetry of the Forest, Wild About Utah, April 23, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/poetry-of-the-forest/

A World Without Trees, Wild About Utah, April 2, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/a-world-without-trees/

Journey North, Wild About Utah, March 19, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/journey-north/

Project FeederWatch, Wild About Utah, February 26, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/project-feederwatch/

Utah Envirothon, Wild About Utah, January 29, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/utah-envirothon/

2017

Winter Bird Feeding, Wild About Utah, December 17, 2017, https://wildaboututah.org/winter-bird-feeding/

Farewell Autumn, Wild About Utah, November 13, 2017, https://wildaboututah.org/the-farewell-of-autumn/

Autumn Migrations, Wild About Utah, October 16, 2017, https://wildaboututah.org/autumn-migrations/

Majestic Yosemite, Wild About Utah, September 11, 2017, https://wildaboututah.org/majestic-yosemite/

The Zion Narrows, Wild About Utah, August 21, 2017, https://wildaboututah.org/the-zion-narrows/

Build a Certified Wildlife Habitat at Home, Wild About Utah, July 17, 2017, https://wildaboututah.org/build-community-wildlife-habitats/

June Fireflies, Wild About Utah, June 19, 2017, https://wildaboututah.org/june-fireflies/

Conserving Water, Wild About Utah, June 5, 2017, https://wildaboututah.org/conserving-water/

Bird Benefits, Wild About Utah, May 1, 2017, https://wildaboututah.org/bird-benefits/

The End of Royalty?, Wild About Utah, April 24, 2017, https://wildaboututah.org/the-end-of-royalty/

Christmas Bird Count 2019

Christmas Bird Count 2019: Mourning Dove Pair Courtesy Pixabay www.pixabay.com
Mourning Dove Pair
Courtesy Pixabay
www.pixabay.com
On December 14th, I will join several others for an exciting day of counting bird species and numbers in our lovely, snowy valley. The numbers will be entered on a database that will be shared globally.

Count Data:
The data collected by observers over the past 120 years has allowed researchers to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America. When combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey, it provides a picture of how the continent’s bird populations have changed in time and space. This long term perspective is vital for conservationists. It informs strategists to better protect birds and their habitat, and helps identify environmental issues, with implications for people as well.

The count has special significance for our changing climate’s impact on birds which is disrupting populations and their spacial distribution that are changing at an accelerating rate.

The report:
Audubon’s 2014 Climate Change Report is a comprehensive, first-of-its kind study that predicts how climate change could affect the ranges of 588 North American birds. Of the bird species studied, more than half are likely to be in trouble. The models indicate that 314 species will lose more than half of their current range by 2080. Adding to this, a recent study by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology reported a 29 percent decline in North American bird populations since 1970.

142 species of concern are found in Utah including our state bird, the California gull and our national symbol, the bald eagle. Averaging the most recent 10 years, Cache valley has seen 16 species increase and 11 species decline. Of course we would need a much broader sweep to know the true story of these species, but our data may play a significant part in the overall analysis.

Audubon’s Climate Initiative, encourages its members to take steps to address the climate change threat in their backyards and communities. Visit their website at audubon.org for how to take action.

Many Citizen Science programs exist for families to participate in- https://www.birds.cornell.edu that have generated reams of data over many years showing the species diversity and abundance of birds in North America and globally. Our valley Christmas Bird Count occurs next Saturday, December 14th. Contact bridgerlandaudubon.org for details. Always a good time gathering important data!

And please, keep those bird feeders full as we enter the coldest month of the year!

This is Jack Greene for Wild About Utah.

Christmas Bird Count 2019: Credits:

Images: Courtesy Pixabay: https://pixabay.com/service/license/
Audio: Contains Audio Courtesy and Copyright Kevin Colver
Text:     Jack Greene

Christmas Bird Count 2019: Additional Reading:

Sat, Dec 14, 2019 Logan, Utah Christmas Bird Count, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/save-the-date-sat-dec-14th/

Bridgerland Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count Page, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/our-projects/cache-valley-christmas-bird-count/

Utahbirds.org, 2019 Christmas Bird Count Schedule, (Local) http://utahbirds.org/cbc/cbc.html

National Audubon, Christmas Bird Count, https://www.audubon.org/conservation/science/christmas-bird-count

Greene, Jack, Cache Valley Christmas Bird Count (CBC) and Climate Change, Wild About Utah, December 11, 2017, https://wildaboututah.org/cache-valley-christmas-bird-count-cbc-climate-change/

Kervin, Linda, The Christmas Bird Count, Wild About Utah, December 16, 2008, https://wildaboututah.org/the-christmas-bird-count/

Cane, James, Kervin, Linda, The Christmas Bird Count, Wild About Utah, December 9, 2010, https://wildaboututah.org/christmas-bird-count/

Liberatore, Andrea, Ruffed Grouse and the Christmas Bird Count, Wild About Utah, December 8, 2014, https://wildaboututah.org/ruffed-grouse-christmas-bird-count/

Greene, Jack, Climate Change and the Christmas Bird Count, Wild About Utah, December 12, 2008, https://wildaboututah.org/climate-change-and-the-christmast-bird-count/

Winter Bird Feeding

Red-breasted Nuthatch mining out the nest site Photo courtesy of Utah Division of Wildlife Resources
Red-breasted Nuthatch mining out the nest site
Photo courtesy of Utah Division of Wildlife Resources
This time of year, we see a cast of characters flying among the trees and bushes as they search for food and a place to nestle to conserve warmth and energy.

Black-Capped Chickadee Copyright Stephen Peterson, Photographer
Black-Capped Chickadee
Copyright Stephen Peterson, Photographer
One of these characters is the Black-capped Chickadee a small bird with a black head, white cheeks and cream colored feathers under its grey wings. The Chickadees are found in all 29 Utah counties.

Dark-eyed 'Oregon' Junco Male, Junco hyemalis montanus, Courtesy and copyright 2008 Ryan P. O'Donnell, Phorographer
Dark-eyed ‘Oregon’ Junco Male, Junco hyemalis montanus, Courtesy and copyright 2008 Ryan P. O’Donnell, Phorographer
Another member of the cast is the Dark-eyed Junco, a medium-sized American sparrow with a neat-flashy look. It has solid slate-grey feathers over most of its body except for its pink sides and white underbody. The Junco is found throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico.

The third cast member is the Red-breasted Nuthatch which has a pale red chest, grey wings and a black feathered head with stripes of white below and above the eyes. Its tail is short, its bill is long and it’s one of the few birds that climbs headfirst down trees.

Red Breasted Nuthatch Courtesy US FWS Dave Menke, Photographer
Red Breasted Nuthatch
Courtesy US FWS
Dave Menke, Photographer
All three birds find the majority of their winter nourishment from nuts and seeds, since most insects are hiding in dormancy or are dead.

When a harsh winter hits and heavy snow fall covers their natural food source, the birds can rely on bird feeders to find nourishment.

Although winter bird feeders are beneficial, some Utah residents may hesitate putting out nuts and seeds for the following reasons:

One, they worry the birds may become dependent on the feeders.

Clark Rushing, assistant professor in Department of Wildland Resources in the Quinney College of Natural Resources at USU explains, “In a typical winter these birds don’t need the extra food from a bird feeder to make it through the winter, but…when the snow covers up their [natural food source] they rely on the feeders which increase the birds’ survival rate over the winter. When [snow] conditions [return to normal]… they go right back to feeding on natural sources.”

Another concern some Utah residents have is if the feeders will impact the birds’ migratory behaviors. They worry species who normally migrate might stick around for the winter because they found food.

Rushing says, “This is not a huge concern because most of these bird species use photo period as a que to migrate, which means they start migrating in the Fall when the days start getting shorter and food is still relatively abundant – so food is not the que that these species use to migrate.”

When starting the hobby of winter bird feeding, there are a few good tips to remember.

First, is the importance of keeping your feeders clean. Some diseases can be spread by bird feeders, so keeping them clean is essential.

According to Rushing, “The recommendation is to take [a feeder] down every two weeks, empty it and give it a light cleaning. [Avoid using] harsh detergents. If you see evidence of mildew or mold then a diluted bleach mixture, which you then rinse off, can be really beneficial. Let the feeder completely dry before you put bird seed in it. When [the feeder is wet] is when you have the most problems, so keep it dry.”

Having a variety of feeders and foods is the best way to attract an assortment of birds to your yard during the winter months.

Rushing adds, “The great thing about bird feeding is it connects people to wildlife.”

It’s one of the few ways you can enjoy watching wildlife out your own dining room window throughout the cold winter months.

This is Shauna Leavitt and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos:
 Red-Breasted Nuthatch, Courtesy Utah Division of Wildlife Resources
 Red-Breasted Nuthatch, Courtesy US FWS, Dave Menke, Photographer
 Black-Capped Chickadee, Courtesy and Copyright Stephen Peterson, Photographer
 Junco, Courtesy and copyright 2008 Ryan P. O'Donnell, Photographer
Audio: Includes audio courtesy and copyright Kevin Colver
Text: Shauna Leavitt, Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University

Sources & Additional Reading

Dr Clark Rushing, Assistant Professor, Wildland Resources, USU S.J. & Jessie E. Quinney College of Natural Resources, http://qcnr.usu.edu/directory/rushing_clark

Red-Breasted Nuthatch, Utah Birds, http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/ProfilesL-R/RedBreastedNuthatch.htm

Black-capped Chickadee, Utah Birds, http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/Profiles/BlackCapChickadee.htm

Dark-Eyed Junco, Utah Birds, http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/ProfilesD-K/DarkEyedJunco.htm

eBird, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, https://ebird.org/home

Project Feederwatch, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, https://feederwatch.org/

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/

Hellstern, Ron, Bird Feeding in Winter, Wild About Utah, Nov 26, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/bird-feeding-in-winter/

Hellstern, Ron, Project Feederwatch, Wild About Utah, Feb 26, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/project-feederwatch/

Hellstern, Ron, Winter Bird Feeding, Wild About Utah, Dec 4, 2017, https://wildaboututah.org/winter-bird-feeding/

Kervin, Linda, Bird Feeding, Wild About Utah, Nov 25, 2008, https://wildaboututah.org/bird-feeding/