Count birds for Christmas

Participants doing the Colorado River section of the 2011 Christmas Bird Count enjoyed sunny skies and a bit of white water on the day-long trip from Corn Lake to Fruita State Park. This year’s Grand Valley Christmas Bird Count is Dec. 16.

The sudden appearance last year of Snowy Owls across the U.S. last winter was an irruption caused by a food shortage in the circumpolar north, the owls’ normal range. This photo shows a female Snowy Owl. Males are almost pure white.

Call it the shoulder season – Fishing has slowed, the main hunting seasons are history and there’s a still a lot of mild weather to enjoy outside.

What to do?

One grand possibility is the annual Grand Valley Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, which this year is held locally on Dec. 16.

The venture not only offers the chance to get outside, you might see a unusual winter visitor.

Last winter, birders and Harry Potter fans across the U.S. reported seeing near-record numbers (winter 2007-2008 also was big) of Snowy Owls in unexpected numbers and places.

Normally a denizen of the far north (Potter’s faithful Hedwig is a Snowy Owl), these magnificent two-foot-tall birds made appearances in every state from coast to coast and spurred at least one birding website to call last winter “the winter of the Snowy Owl.”

One oft-heard anecdote told how five owls seen near Kansas City, Mo., created a traffic jam when thousands of people flocked to the area, all hoping to see the brilliant white birds.

While Snowy Owls can be nomadic, scientists termed this sudden incursion an “irruption,” usually driven by the search for food.

Because they normally are caused by food shortages, irruptions aren’t infrequent. This year it’s much smaller birds – grosbeaks, finches and nuthatches — that already are showing up in record numbers across the northern tier of states and, in some cases, as far south as the Gulf of Mexico.

“The finches are upon us in good numbers, and there is an all-out invasion underway, the likes of which we haven’t seen in years,” said Patrick Comins, Director of Bird Conservation for Audubon Connecticut. “Usually they stay deep within the boreal and sub-boreal wilds of Canada.  But in search of food, they can move far south.”

No one can predict an irruption, which makes such endeavors as the Christmas Bird Count so important in monitoring bird species.

A recent article in Audubon Magazine said information from the CBC is “becoming increasingly important not only in documenting current climate change but in predicting the future effects of climate change on North American bird populations.”

The Grand Valley Audubon Society uses a CBC circle 15-miles in diameter centered on Fruitvale in order to have a sample representing the varied habitat across the valley.

The circle is divided into 19 areas with one group responsible for each section. Every group has at least one experienced birder.

Birders of all experience levels are invited to participate, and every extra pair of eyes means that more birds will be spotted and counted.

Last year’s count tallied 100 species, including thousands of waterfowl, raptors, songbirds, two Black Phoebes and a Spotted Sandpiper.

No partridge, pear tree or otherwise.

For more information and to get on a counting crew (Dec. 15 deadline), contact the Grand Valley Audubon Society at


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