The state of the birds: Annual counts provide vital information

Christmas Bird Count participants cluster near Blue Mesa Reservoir in 2019. This year's count will take place in Montrose, Delta, Hotchkiss and Gunnison. (Courtesy photo/Bruce Ackerman)

Population and other pressures have affected the birds that call Montrose and surrounding environs home — but our winged friends remain plentiful.

Last year, despite pandemic restrictions, volunteers showed up for the Black Canyon Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count and according to member Missy Siders, that “skeleton crew” logged more than 9,000 individual birds across 78 species.

“There are usually a lot of sparrows, finches and doves. We usually have woodpeckers, hawks, falcons, eagles and, if there’s open, unfrozen water, we get all kinds of ducks and geese,” Siders said.

Sometimes, the birders catch a glimpse of a rarer species. “We’ve had a white pelican, Harris’ sparrow, blue jay, curve-billed thrasher and a Mexican duck,” she said.

The annual bird count will return this year, too, in Delta, Montrose and Gunnison, plus a Jan. 2, 2022 bird count in Hotchkiss. All levels of birding experience are welcome. (See related information for details. COVID vaccines are required.)

The annual counts, which in Montrose cover a 15-mile radius from downtown, provide valuable information, Black Canyon Audubon Society President Bruce Ackerman said.

The local counts are part of about 2,000 Christmas Bird Counts taking place nationwide at roughly the same time.

“They’re pretty good for studying trends in the population of different kinds of birds,” he said. “It’s a pretty great longterm data set about different kinds of birds. We try to see as many birds as we can see and count the number of individual birds we see.

“Some have made long-term trends. Some have shifted areas. All the data go into one big database, going back to 1900. You could look up your favorite species and see how it changed in one place or across the country.”

Here, the number of sandhill cranes has ticked up in the past 20 years and, over the past 50 or so, Canada geese have increased. Ackerman also noted more Eurasian collared doves than in the past.

But, he said: “Anyway you cut it, there are more people and houses around here than there used to be.”

Warming climates have produced notable change, with some birds now wintering further north than they used to. Locally, winters used to be more frigid, Ackerman said, but winter weather is more variable now.

“Sometimes we are frozen and sometimes we are not on a given day. If you looked at today, a lot of birds have not even migrated this far south yet because it’s still pretty warm north of here,” he said.

Birds aren’t just pretty to look at. Depending on the species, they eat insects, rodents and weed seeds, providing an important form of pest-control.

Ackerman is a retired wildlife biologist and professor at Colorado Mesa University-Montrose. He became interested in birds five decades ago in Maryland and began bird-watching, including in other countries.

Upon retiring to Montrose five years ago, he connected with other bird-watchers.

As for his favorite bird? “That’s like asking which is your favorite child,” he said, but added that golden eagles are among his favorites.

“There are two kinds that only live around here in Colorado. One is the Gunnison sage-grouse and one is the brown-capped rosy finch. It only lives in Colorado, basically. That’s pretty special,” Ackerman said.

Apart from the annual bird counts, Ackerman leads a monthly birding walk that departs from the Gold’s Gym parking lot on East Main Street the first Tuesday of each month. The next walk is Dec. 7.

Ackerman said it doesn’t matter what someone’s expertise is, if people are interested in birds, they are welcome on the walks or to participate in the annual counts. “We’re glad to show beginners what they’re looking at, to go to a good place and talk about what’s there,” he said.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.

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