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Cache Valley Christmas Bird Count successful, chilly

Small birds take flight in a snow-covered parking lot in front of a house surrounded by snowy aspen trees.
Aimee Van Tatenhove
Rosy-finches take flight over a snowy Utah landscape.

Around Christmas-time each year, the National Audubon Society holds the Christmas Bird Count, an event where bird-loving volunteers count as many birds as they can in a twenty-four hour period.

The Christmas Bird Count, known as the CBC, is an annual treat for bird-lovers across the western hemisphere. Started in 1901, the CBC is overseen by the National Audubon Society, an organization tasked with bird conservation across the Americas. Counts are held between December 14 to January 15, and this year, the Bridgerland Audubon Society chose this past Saturday to hold their count. Being a birder myself, I was lucky enough to lead a crew for this year’s Cache Valley CBC.

We started out very early to listen for owls up Smithfield-Dry Canyon, leaving our cars at 4am to trudge through the knee-deep snow in search of our nocturnal feathered friends. Ambient air temperature hovered around zero degrees Fahrenheit, and each time we stopped to listen at one of our predetermined count locations in the canyon, our fingers and toes reminded us how cold it was.

Emily Sadler, a volunteer on the count, was a victim of the deep snow.

“I was doing so well without snow in my boots and now it's like…It’s just in there,” Sadler lamented.

It’s tough to see birds in the dark, so we used a speaker to call out to the owls, in the hopes they would hoot back at us. During each count, we started hooting at the smallest, rarest owl species, and ended with the largest species.

“We'll start with the small owls and then go to the big owls as we're doing the playback because if we have big owls come in, they might eat the small owls,” I explained to the group.

Unfortunately, the cold moonless night didn’t pan out for my owling crew. Despite our best efforts, we shuffled back to our cars at sunrise without having heard a single owl. Sarah Barnes, a graduate student in USU’s Department of Watershed Sciences and my scribe for the owl counts, shared her thoughts.

Van Tatenhove: “Sarah, how do you feel about getting skunked?”
Barnes: “Do you want me to read my latest haiku?”
Van Tatenhove: "Yeah!"
Barnes: “The owl says ‘No way. I will not come out and play. We will have to come back another day.’ That's how I feel about this whole experience.”

The Audubon holds these counts each year to get an idea of how bird populations are doing and whether their ranges are shifting because of climate and habitat changes. Datasets collected over many years, like those from the CBC, are invaluable to scientists trying to understand how birds are faring on our rapidly changing planet. It’s also a great excuse to get outside during the winter.

Courtney Check, a graduate student in USU’s Department of Wildland Resources, shared why she participates in the CBC.

“It's one of my favorite annual traditions. It's a good way to get out and, like, see a familiar area in the winter. Look for some cool birds. And I don't know, I like feeling like I'm contributing to this big long tradition of bird counting,” Check said.

After warming up with some hot chocolate, I met up with the daytime birding crew to collect the survey assignments. For daytime counts, each crew is typically assigned an area or two to survey. My crew was tasked with the eastern and western Smithfield sectors, just north of Logan.

It was still chilly, but warmer than the early morning owl counts, and birds were everywhere. We alternated driving up and down Smithfield streets and walking along snow-covered hiking trails with our binoculars out, counting birds as we went. We saw lots of common bird species, like chickadees and robins, but we got an extra treat on a walk up a short canyon trail: a couple of eagles.

Van Tatenhove: “What is that?”
Check: “I think that was a juvenile golden.”
Van Tatenhove: “So there's this huge bird that just flew above us, oh it just landed.”
Check: “No it's not a golden.”
Van Tatenhove: “Is it a juvenile bald?”
Check: “Yeah, I think it’s a bald, it’s a juvenile bald. Oh hey, there’s an adult. That's awesome!”

Despite the cold weather, CBC participants counted around a whopping 100 bird species in Cache Valley this year. While our local Christmas Bird Count is over for this season, learn more about how to participate in next year’s count, or find information about the Great Backyard Bird Count held in February each year.

Aimee Van Tatenhove is a science reporter at UPR. She spends most of her time interviewing people doing interesting research in Utah and writing stories about wildlife, new technologies and local happenings. She is also a PhD student at Utah State University, studying white pelicans in the Great Salt Lake, so she thinks about birds a lot! She also loves fishing, skiing, baking, and gardening when she has a little free time.