Annual count gives bird’s-eye view to birders’ passion
January 17, 2016
GREAT SAND DUNES NATIONAL PARK, Colo. — Terry Rau isn't necessarily greedy. She just can't get enough. Neither can Jack Harlan, an oceanographer who drove from Boulder all the way to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve for the Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count.
Rau can't tell you how many birds have made her "life list."
"I just returned from Ecuador, where I added 720 birds, including the screaming piha," said the retired geologist from Salida. "I did Africa last year, so I got a few there."
Harlan appears similarly stumped when asked how long he's been birding.
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"Let's see, how old am I?" he muses. "Forty-five years (of birding). Since I was 15."
The two proved their devotion to those winged wonders as they set out in a caravan to count birds in the world's oldest citizen scientific survey. He has done at least 20 Christmas bird counts, and both were eager to add to the Audubon Society's data.
Rau had started the meter before the census even began: "On the way in, I saw one rough-legged hawk, about 20 horned larks."
Soon the duo pulled over their respective vehicles to tally about 20 crows, 45 ravens and 20 starlings sharing a field with a collection of cattle.
Next, onward to the Medano-Zapata Ranch, where the Nature Conservancy has preserved priceless archaeological sites and where staff from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History uncovered bison bones estimated to be 11,000 years old.
But while Rau and Harlan stopped to gaze at the woolly bison and made sure to shut the gate that enclosed them, their real interest was piqued by the promise of great horned owls in ruins of ranch houses ahead.
They weren't disappointed. A huge owl sat low in a tree at the first stop, his huge nest snuggled in a branch overhead.
The next set of crumbling ranch structures turned up three of the enormous raptors, whose wingspans can reach 23 inches. So says the Field Guide to Birds of North America. And if you can't believe storied birder and author Kenn Kaufman, whom can you trust?
One owl shrieked like a banshee, so he was easy to spot. Then he unfurled his enormous wings, surely creating a breeze of his own.
The other two owls were well-hidden in a dead tree — visible to both expert birders, invisible to the novices joining them.
The non-birders were smitten by a plump porcupine climbing a tree at the former ranch. But Rau and Harlan barely took notice. Both had more birds to count.
"We're data collectors, basically," the latter said. And while he enjoys "other things," such as the tree-climbing quilled rodent, they had work to do. Like children on a scavenger hunt, they were eager to count as many fine feathered friends as they could.
The enthusiasm proved infectious. As their companions drove away, the novices spotted a big bird atop a power pole, almost preening in pride. It stayed put long enough to be studied closely and compared with others in the bird guide, then spread its wings and proved without a doubt — even to the non-birders — to be a red-tailed hawk. Only a mile or two down the road, a rough-legged hawk flew overhead. Then six ravens were found feasting on a rabbit carcass on a nearby highway.
Seven volunteers came to join in the Christmas Bird Count this year — fewer than in some recent years, said count coordinator Loree Harvey, a biologist for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management who also teaches biology at Monte Vista High School.
"A lot of people think birding means you have to be moving," Harvey said. "If you just sit and listen, you learn more, you hear more. Most birders bird by hearing more than sight anyhow."
Remember that if you decide to join in the fun next holiday season. The Christmas Bird Count, going strong since 1900, helps measure bird populations and their health to better direct conservation. You, too, can be a citizen scientist. Just look, listen and count.