SHERIDAN — Sheridan may be going to the birds — and that’s a good thing for several groups in town that want to preserve, enhance and enjoy bird populations in the area for centuries to come.
Within the last several months, several efforts have placed Sheridan County’s feathered friends center stage in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons.
Most recently, Sheridan birders participated in the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count. On a cold, snowy Sunday, 29 people went out in 11 teams and canvassed an area in a 15-mile radius around Sheridan to identify and count every bird seen. Another four people counted birds at their home bird feeders.
Bird count coordinator Julie Rieder said the day went well in spite of the weather.
Three youth, Eloise Newbold and Camden and Rosi Schroth, and two college students, Paige and Hannah Jernigan, participated, which was encouraging to Rieder.
“It can’t be just the gray hair club where everyone is 70 or older,” Rieder said. “That’s my fear for Audubon in general. We need to get young people involved and interested. It’s a lot more powerful for a young person to say, ‘Don’t rip up my trees, and don’t tear up my mountains.’”
The unconfirmed total count for the day was 39 species, Rieder said. This included two rare sightings: a pair of wood ducks — which are common in the summer but have been seen only twice since 1969 in the Sheridan Christmas Bird Count — and a potential Krider’s red-tailed hawk, which has never been seen on the local bird count.
Last year 47 species were counted.
While Rieder had a general sense that numbers were lower this year, that isn’t necessarily a cause for alarm. One low year may not mean much unless it becomes five or 10 low years in a row.
“That’s what nice about the count is you get these overall trends over long time spans,” Rieder said.
One of the biggest challenges with the count this year was finding good birders to be team leaders and provide direction on bird identification. Rieder hopes that more local people will show an interest in birds and care about their conservation. She also hopes to get more young people involved so they can be trained up to preserve birds into the future.
That’s where another local effort comes into play.
Earlier in December, the YMCA, Science Kids, the Trail End Museum and the Bighorn Audubon Society teamed up to create the Trail End Trackers.
Every two weeks, Science Kids Executive Director Sarah Mentock grabs a dozen or so students in the YMCA after school program and takes them on a bird walk through Kendrick Park up to the the Trail End Museum at Kendrick Mansion.
Museum staff installed four bird feeders on the grounds and keep them full, the Bighorn Audubon Society purchased the feeders and provided a few months worth of food, the YMCA “provides the kiddos” and Science Kids heads up the naturalist education, Mentock said.
On the first outing Dec. 8, the kids really got into it, Mentock said. She hopes their passion continues.
We are so fortunate in Sheridan to be right smack dab in the middle of a major fly way for birds,” Mentock said. “In the fall and spring we get incredible bird life. This is really a neat idea to try to grow the next generation of birders in our area.”
Other efforts to boost birding and bird habitat in the area include revitalizing the Bighorn Audubon Society and installing a bird path behind the Green House Living homes so that residents can get outside and enjoy the birds in their backyard.
“The bird path idea is one I had when they were building the buildings,” Green House Living for Sheridan board member Liz Howell said. “I just want out back and it was early spring and the wetlands back there were full of reeds and it was just chock full of birds. The sound was like a symphony. I thought my mother would love to sit here and listen.”
So Howell and several others teamed up to raise money to purchase feeders and build a gazebo on the newly installed pathway. The Audubon society donated binoculars and field guides for each Green House home. And now, the residents and their families have a place to feed and watch the birds that call Sheridan home.
Local ornithologist Jackie Canterbury was recently named the president of the local Bighorn Audubon Society and is striving to revitalize it, she said.
In revitalizing the local chapter, she hopes to get more people interested in birding and bird conservation. She also hopes to make Sheridan a better place for the birds.
“Climate change and habitat loss from agriculture, oil and gas and urban development are two profound threats facing birds globally,” Canterbury said.
A recent climate study by the national Audubon Society, utilizing Christmas Bird Count and Breeding Bird Survey data — has shown dramatic decreases in bird habitats across the nation. The study modeled 17 climate variables and predicted that of the 588 north American bird species, over half — about 314 — would lose more than 50 percent of their current range by the year 2080.
The bald eagle, a staple in Wyoming, could lose up to 70 percent of its current range by 2050.
Several birds in Wyoming — including the osprey, bald eagle, golden eagle, rufus hummingbird, burrowing owl and greater sage grouse — are on the list of birds at risk of losing habitat.
One of the key projects the revitalized Bighorn Audubon Society is taking on to address the loss of habitat is establishing Important Bird Areas. They are meeting with people in the area to identify areas that are important for birds, areas that if they disappeared, the birds that use it would also disappear.
IBAs are a global Audubon initiative. Areas in the Sheridan area that may be possible IBA designations include Lake DeSmet, an area of large trees near Big Horn that bald eagles use to nest, South Park and Kleenburn Recreation Area. An IBA designation doesn’t limit what can and can’t be done in the area, it just urges conservation to preserve birds.