Annual Christmas bird count steeped in tradition

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SHERIDAN — The Big Horn Audubon Society will conduct its annual bird survey and bird feeder count, one in Sheridan Dec. 22 and one in Big Horn-Story Dec. 29. The Christmas bird counts are open to anyone interested, you don’t need to be an expert birder in order to participate. Lots of eyes, people to record information and people to drive are needed.

Teams will be devised and a team leader will call to set the meeting place and time. Dress warmly and bring binoculars, a bird book, snacks and water. Try to be out as long as possible, ideally spend an eight-hour day to maximize data compilation. Approximately 30 participants are expected, but the more the better.

Compiler Dr. Ariel Downing said that each count is conducted in a 15-mile diameter circle, one surrounding Sheridan and the other surrounding Big Horn and Story. There is also a third bird count circle around Buffalo. All three circles almost touch, which provides a 45-mile expanse in which data has been collected for more than 40 years. Parts of the Story-Big Horn circle are hard to get to because it includes the face of the mountain, but the area also includes the Goose Creek and Piney Creek habitats.

There are 20 counts conducted in the state of Wyoming from Cheyenne to Cody and from Sundance to Evanston. They span from Dec. 17 to Jan. 1. Wyoming is not the only state that participates, every state has Christmas bird counts and they are more plentiful in the more populated areas of the nation.

The bird counts are conducted the same way every year because repetition is the key in science, Big Horn Audubon Society President Dr. Jackie Canterbury said. The bird counters follow a protocol that is established by the National Audubon Society using specific forms and ways to count the birds, and following designated routes that are used each year to maintain consistency. At the end of the day, counters gather to compare notes and turn in reports to the compilers, who compile all the data to send into the Audubon Society.

Canterbury said each team is given a distinct route. As participants follow the route, one person writes and another looks at both sides of the road. When the end of the route is reached, the count stops. Utilizing this method prevents double counts, which can skew the numbers. Numbers are checked for possible miscounts when they are turned into the compilers and then again when they are uploaded to the National Audubon Society.

“We really like to get people excited about watching birds, so we select an experienced birder and send him or her out with a carload of people who want to go out and learn,” Canterbury said.

There are a variety of ways to participate — by car, on foot at The Brinton Museum and other locations, at night to count nocturnal species like owls or even from the comforts of home.

Downing said if people want to participate, but don’t want to leave their warm houses, birds can be counted at bird feeders as well. This provides a look at birds that are off the main roads. In order to get an accurate count, look out the window in an allotted time period and write down the number of birds seen, making sure not to double count.

This is the 117th bird count for the National Audubon Society. According to the National Audubon Society website, prior to the turn of the century, people engaged in a holiday tradition known as the “Christmas Side Hunt.” They would choose sides and go afield with their guns and whoever killed the most birds won.

Conservation was in its beginning stages around the turn of the 20th century, and many observers and scientists were becoming concerned about declining bird populations. Christmas Day 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman, officer in the newly forming Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday tradition, a “Christmas Bird Census” that would count birds during the holidays rather than hunt them.

The first Christmas Bird Count had 27 counters in locations ranging from Toronto to California, and 90 species of birds were counted.

The local counts have been going on since the early 1970s.

“I know that the Story-Big Horn count has been going on since 1973 because I was there,” Downing said. “My mother, Helen Downing, was a premier birder in Sheridan County, and she was instrumental in starting both counts. As a teenager, I would be dragged along at unconscionable hours of the day, you know, because birders have to get up early. I’ve been going on spring counts, summer counts, winter counts for most of my life.”

Dirlene Wheeler said this year is her first year as a compiler for the Sheridan count.

“I have participated in bird counts in the area for about 10 years,” Wheeler said. “I actually started with Big Horn bird count, a friend asked me to go and we had such a great time. I have been an avid bird watcher for 40 years, and I am a biology teacher by trade.”

According to the Story-Big Horn 2015 data summary, the objective of each Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count is to obtain information about which bird species spend the winter in Sheridan County, approximate numbers of individual birds of various species, and collect data about winter conditions that affect birds and other wildlife. Information obtained over several years may be used to identify trends, such as migratory patterns, species in decline, climate trends and other developments in the biosphere.

Downing said the count is conducted in the wintertime because the winter population is the stable population without the spring and summer migrants. Canterbury added that a “breeding bird survey” is also conducted between April and June. This count combined with the Christmas count provides a look at how the continent’s bird populations have changed over time and space. It shows which birds are locals, which species have expanded their range and which ones are no longer coming here. It is a way to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America.

Wheeler said the data collected varies from year to year depending on new species coming to the area, and the decline of other species. It is valuable information for ecologists and ornithologists.  According to Downing, the 2015 Story-Big Horn count came in with 59 species and a grand total of 6,571 individual birds.

“Weather is the greatest challenge and it sounds like it will be nicer Thursday so that is good news,” Wheeler said. “The most rewarding part is just getting out in the winter to quiet solitude when you’re out there looking for our avian friends. It’s kind of like an Easter egg hunt.”

To participate, call Dirlene Wheeler 307-752-3074 for the Sheridan count and Ariel Downing 307-751-2303 for the Big Horn-Story count.

By |December 22nd, 2016|

About the Author:

Kristin Magnusson grew up in a rural town near Louisville, Kentucky. In 2003, she moved to Denver to earn a bachelor's degree in multimedia studies and broaden her horizons. In 2009, Kristin moved to Sheridan , where she worked in video, as a ranch hand and veterinary assistant. In April 2016, she started a new adventure at The Sheridan Press.

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