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Flurries of Feathers - Winter’s CBC
by Damian Fagan

During one Saturday in the early portion of winter (between December 14th and January 5th) a nation of bird watchers will participate in one of the longest running data collection programs in the United States - the Christmas Bird Count. Better known as the CBC, this year marks the count’s 103rd anniversary. With more than 50,000 participants in more than 1,800 counts, this is quite a large voluntary effort by citizens to gain an understanding of winter avian distribution and status of early winter populations.

Hatched during the turn-of-the-century, this count was a nonconsumptive way to enjoy birds around the Christmas holidays. Replacing the “Side Hunt,” a day-long excursion into the field whose participants attempted to shoot more birds than their opposing side, the Christmas Bird Count was organized by Frank Chapman of the then-fledgling Audubon Society.

That first winter, 27 participants counted birds in 25 different locations from Massachusetts to Monterey, California. Together they counted some 90 different species; this was long before Peterson Field Guides or National Geographic Guides or CD recordings of bird calls. Bird watchers back then were probably a suspect lot.

Locally, the Moab Bird Club, a loosely-knit flock of birders, organizes the Moab Count. The 15-mile diameter count circle encompasses Spanish and Castle Valley, the River Road, Matheson Preserve, Ken’s Lake and a small portion of the Loop Road. In January of 2002, 47 birders and three teams of feeder-watchers, counted more than 12,000 birds made up of 74 species. Participants enjoyed a fine day in the field and hosted a wrap-up brunch the following day.

Though I can’t say that I have taken part in Moab’s 18 or so winter counts, I have been associated with many of them. And though a number of them were held on mild winter days that has not always been the case. One winter in particular, we hiked through six to ten inches of fresh snow, and braved freezing temperatures. That fowl day (pun intended), I think the feeder watchers outnumbered the field surveyors.

So what takes place during a CBC? From an initial organizational meeting, teams are assigned to different portions of the count circle. Maps and data sheets are distributed and tips on locations for certain species are shared, as certain species favor select locations and may be easily overlooked. The teams then cover their prospective turf, walking, driving, or biking through neighborhoods, woodlands and open areas in search of feathered beings. Species and their numbers are recorded; unusual or unlikely species require some additional notes for identification purposes. Pigeons count, but plastic flamingos do not.

Last year, about a dozen volunteers searched for owls - one of the groups of birds easily missed during the day surveys - by playing taped calls of western screech owls in certain locations at night. A total of four screech owls was found, far short of the 100 plus that the Grand Junction group locates each winter. At least we know what is our competition.

The CBC is open to all interested individuals from novice birders to professional ornithologists. The Moab group organizes participants by ability and desire so that beginning birders may join a team with more experienced individuals. The rewards are many, other than lots of fresh air and cold weather. I still have vivid memories of unusual sightings from past CBC’s - six soaring eagles above Castle Rock, a snowbound Lincoln sparrow, a plummeting Cooper’s hawk slicing through a flock of starlings and catching one. So for this winter’s CBC I look forward to the forecast - under partially sunny skies, flurries of feathers with a strong chance of an unusual sighting, followed by darkness and owl hoots.

**Interested individuals may contact Andrea Brand or Rick Boretti at 259-4050 for more information about this winter’s Christmas Bird Count.

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