Bighorn Audubon Christmas Bird Count: A guide to spotting local wintering birds

Home|Outdoors Feature|Bighorn Audubon Christmas Bird Count: A guide to spotting local wintering birds

SHERIDAN — Many of the native birds in the Sheridan area can be identified and viewed throughout the year, but birding fiends come together once a year to conduct a bird count in the wintertime.

The Bighorn Audubon Society has conducted the Christmas Bird Count for more than a century and relied on volunteers who collect data for a day about the birds in their assigned areas. Each count takes place in an established 15-mile diameter in two areas — Sheridan and Story/Big Horn.

The counters will tally birds by sight and sound throughout the day, regardless of species. The count gives a good estimate of the total number of birds in the area. That data can be and has been compared over the years to be a resource for environmental agencies.

For those that have not been the birding fanatics traversing through below freezing weather, it might be difficult to pick out the animal from afar.

This guide will help those who wish to participate in the annual count with the Bighorn Audubon Dec. 16 for the Sheridan count or Dec. 29 for the Story/Big Horn count. Information was provided by Jackie Canterbury, Bighorn Audubon president and author of a book about local birds.


Family Accipitridae: hawks and eagles

This species is uncommon in summer and a common overwintering migrant.

Identification: Adult birds typically have white heads and tails. Immature birds are mostly brown and distinguished from golden eagles by their relatively heavy bills and under wing coverts, which are paler than their flight feathers.

The legs, feet and beaks of adult Bald Eagles are bright yellow. When mature, eyes also develop into a yellow color.

Voice: Bald Eagles have a timid sounding call that is a rapid series of high-pitched piping notes. Females often respond with a single call note of similar frequency.

Habitat and ecology: This species feeds almost exclusively on carrion, especially road-killed deer. In many regions it also eats fish. During the summer, breeding pairs can be found along rivers and lakes.


Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)

This species is a common resident, winter transient and migrant. Some overwinter locally in the area; peak migration is in early April and October.

Identification: Plumages on this bird are variable with many pattern variations from light to very dark brown or blackish. Different races bear different patterns, with most including browns and whites.

The single best identifying characteristic for all age groups is the dark leading edges on their underwings that extend from the armpit to the wrist.

Voice: A prolonged, descending “keer” scream is heard when the bird is alarmed, disturbed or defensive.

Habitat and ecology: The common buteo hawk may be found in open country where nesting occurs and in large cottonwood and pine trees.


Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus)

This species is a common winter resident, breeding on the Arctic tundra. The bird has been seen in the area from January to April and September to December.

Identification: The bird is called “rough-legged” because its tarsal feathers extend down to the base of the toes. Plumage show dark “wrist” patches that are visible on the underwings during flight. They also have white bases to their dark-tipped tails.

The hawks can often be seen hovering in the wind.

Voice: This bird is mostly silent in the winter. During the Arctic breeding season, the hawk produces a catlike mew call.

Habitat and ecology: This hawk hunts over open grasslands, meadows and croplands in winter. It often perches in wooded riparian areas adjacent to open country. They prey on mostly small rodents.


Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)

This species is a common permanent resident in the area.

Identification: Waxwing refers to the red tips of the secondary flight feathers, which resemble drops of sealing wax and are present on adults of both sexes. The breast of the bird is yellow and adults of the species have a black facial mask; relatively long, pointed wings; and a black tail with a yellow terminal band.

Voice: Waxwings can be heard at a very high frequency, sounding like “see.”

Habitat and ecology: The Waxwing lives in open woodlands, and broad-leaved trees are used for nesting. Fruiting trees and berries are also favored for food sources, along with insects and buds.


Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)

This bird is a common permanent resident and descends in elevation during the winter. Identification: The Junco ranges from mostly black to dark grayish, to having a pearly-gray head with a bluish-gray cast and pinkish cinnamon flanks. The cinnamon-colored flanks are common in the Bighorn Mountains and north-central Rockies.

Voice: The male’s song is a series of musical trills in the same pitch, resembling that of a Chipping Sparrow.

Habitat and ecology: These sparrows prefer montane forests and aspen groves with a dense understory and plants that provide cover for their ground nests. They may also nest in a small cavity or hole on a mountain rock face. They feed on insects and seeds, scratching on the ground among the underbrush.

Get more information on the Christmas Bird Counts here.

By |Dec. 7, 2018|

About the Author:

Ashleigh Snoozy joined The Sheridan Press in October 2016 as the public safety and city government reporter before moving into the managing editor position in November 2018. She is a native of Colorado and graduated from Biola University in Los Angeles, California. Before working in Sheridan, she worked as a sports editor for the Sidney Herald in Sidney, Montana. Email Ashleigh at:


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