OUT: Birders get their numb-numb-numb-numbers
His hands scraping at the ice on the raft tubes, Jonathon Cooley still managed a smile.
“It’s always a nice day for a float but we could have picked a nicer day,” he said with a small laugh. “At least there’s no ice in the river.”
Fresh snow and temperatures in the low 20s greeted a handful of well-bundled birders early Dec. 14 as they gathered around Cooley’s raft at the Corn Lake State Park put-in.
The quintet was among the 60 birders taking part in the Grand Valley Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count.
That the previous day was sunny and in the mid-50s was a bizarre joke. Late on the 13th, as temperatures plummeted and the snow started in earnest, e-mails were circulated that hinted at a possible postponement until the weather improved.
The National Audubon Society sets aside a two-week period around Christmas for its member chapters to host individual counts but later might not be better, said Larry Arnold.
“By delaying it we run the risk of even worse weather later,” pointed out Arnold, who was the leader for the Colorado River portion of the count. “It’s best to do it as planned, and besides, it’s not that bad.”
Birders who spread out through the 15-mile count circle centering on Fruitvale recorded 88 species of birds, the lowest number since 87 were recorded in 1989.
The weather might have had a hand in that, although by 4 p.m., when we pulled out of the river at Fruita State Park, the day was sunny. Not warm exactly, but definitely sunny.
Along for Cooley’s 18-mile downriver row starting at Corn Lake State Park were Arnold, Jacob Cooper, a senior at Fruita Monument High School, and Jason Beason, a Western Slope researcher for the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory in Brighton.
Almost immediately it became clear that pairing Cooper and Beason in the front of the raft was a stroke of genius, as bird species quickly started to mount.
“There’s a pipit, and another and another,” said Cooper, a talented birder who is considering a scholarship to Louisiana State University. “We might have a record on pipits this year.”
Pipits are small, dull-colored shorebirds, not often seen in great numbers along the Colorado River in December. In fact, none were seen during last year’s count.
“I remember one year we had one and we were pretty happy with that,” recalled Cooley, who among other adventures teaches paleontology at Mesa State College and runs summer trips for National Geographic Magazine.
“I see at least 30 and maybe more,” said Beason, who also came up with the first (of two) blue-gray gnatcatcher, also a good find along the snowy bank and also missing from last year’s count.
Other notes from around the count circle included a white-winged dove, the first such sighting for this area, and a lack of brown creepers and canyon wrens, usually seen on all counts, according to count coordinator Paul Didier.
“The dove was seen by someone at home, who lives within the 15-mile diameter circle, watching her feeder,” said Didier in an e-mail. The sighting reflects the possibility that many birders might have opted to stay home on this snowy morning and watch the visitors to their bird feeders.
We also noted 179 sandhill cranes, spied far overhead, “karoo-ing” in their singular fashion and holding to a southern-tending flight path.
Didier said this was the 105th annual Audubon Christmas Count and the 59th time Grand Junction had participated. Counts were held in Grand Junction as early as 1923-25 and after halting started again in 1946.
“Fifteen species (1925) was the lowest count we had (while) the average for all years from 1923 on is 69 species,” Didier wrote.
Our boat crew ended with 151 pipits, something Arnold partly subscribed to them showing up better against the snowy background.
“It was perfect pipit weather,” he said. “Plus, there’s always the ‘surprise factor.’
“Every time you go out birding, you see something different. If you go out looking for something, you might not see it.”