Rachel Keller looks for birds Dec. 17 during the Bighorn Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count. Audubon groups around the state conduct surveys Dec. 14-Jan. 5. (Rob Davidson)

Stacey Scott’s earliest memory is tied to the Christmas Bird Count.

His father, Oliver Scott, organized one of the first counts in the state on a mild January morning long ago. The next day the infamous blizzard of 1949 hit. The story became family legend, and the count a tradition Stacey Scott anticipated more than opening presents on Christmas Day. While other children dreamt of gifts under the tree, Scott eagerly waited to find out what area he might get assigned (Casper Mountain was the best). While he waited he’d scout a now-developed area behind Casper College for birds to prepare for what was then called the Christmas Census.

Today Scott’s pacemaker won’t keep up with the rigor of a proper mountainside survey. But he still spends the weeks before the annual Christmas Bird Count scouting from his vehicle and the event is still a highlight of his year.

“On the ranch, we have pregnancy test day, branding day — those are big days,” he said. “But they really aren’t as big as the Christmas count to me.”

Scott is one of several hundred people across the state who, between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5, spend a day birding and logging what they see as part of the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count.

This is the 118th year of the event, said Zach Hutchinson, a community naturalist for Audubon Rockies and president of the Murie Audubon Society in Casper.

The count grew out of holiday hunting traditions. Often families hunted birds and mammals on Christmas Day, making it a competition to see how many they could get, Hutchinson said. The ornithologist Frank M. Chapman suggested a bird census instead in 1900. Twenty-seven people counted a total of 90 species of birds that year.

Last year, Audubon reported that more than 73,000 observers across the U.S., Canada, Caribbean, Latin America and Pacific Islands counted more than 56 million birds.

In Wyoming, about 300 people participate in about 21 counts each year, Hutchinson said.

Wanda Major started the Riverton count about 10 years ago. This year’s Riverton count is scheduled for Dec. 28.  Major always sees a great horned owl family in the local cemetery. This year she expects she’ll see some blue jays — she’s already spotted one in her backyard.

“That’s a treat,” she said. “Blue jays are very unusual around here this time of year.”

But what Major looks forward to the most is the “birding camaraderie,” of the counts.

That is one reason Audubon hosts the annual counts, Hutchinson said. But the volunteer birders also log important data Audubon uses for research such as its report on how climate change will impact North American birds. Other scientists and agencies also use the data, including U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and the Environmental Protection Agency.  

Through the years, Scott has watched the bird populations around Casper change and logged it as part of the Christmas count. Among ducks, he used to see only golden eyes, mallards and maybe a merganser. Now, with more open water in the winter, the count will document more than 10 duck species each year.

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The Murie Audubon Chapter, for which Scott organizes the annual event, performed its bird count Dec. 16. While he hasn’t compiled the final numbers, Scott thinks this year was one of the best counts yet for Casper with more than 70 species spotted.

Scott attributes the large numbers to the mild weather that brought out about 30 volunteers, including Scott’s son Ben and Ben’s two children — the fourth generation of Scott birders to participate in the annual count. Not everyone in the family is as passionate about the annual count as Stacey, but birding is still a family tradition.

Stacey’s older brother, Charlie, runs the bird count in Bates Hole. Stacey’s other son, Joe, could identify a chickadee by its call before he was 2 years old and could even pronounce the name. He called it a “dee dee”.

Many of Scott’s favorite memories are tied to birding. He still remembers the most unusual birds he’s seen, like his first saw-whet owl. He was a teenager and meticulous in documenting the bird — his father was a stickler for details when it came to verifying an unusual sighting.

Scott remembers a count from about 15 years ago when he saw pintail ducks, trumpeter swans and pelicans along a short stretch of road.

“That was three really good birds to see that day,” he said.

One year, while a student at the University of Wyoming, he drove to Cheyenne to participate in its count and spotted a blue-winged teal, a rare find for that area in that time of year, he said.

It’s the possibility of a rare sighting that makes the Christmas bird count exciting, even after all these years, he said. But what he really loves are the simple moments, like when he startles a grouse and it explodes from the underbrush and showers snow on the birders below. Anticipating such events, he said, already has him excited for next year.

 

Upcoming Wyoming Christmas bird counts

Riverton, 8 a.m. Dec. 28, meet at the McDonalds on Federal Ave. For more information contact Wanda Major 307-856-6690 wayneandwanda@wyoming.com

Sundance, Dec. 30, For more information contact Jen at 307-283-2467, ravenssong18@gmail.com

Story-Bighorn, Dec. 30, for more information contact Ariel Downing at 307-751-2303, bandgeek832@gmail.com.

Crowheart, 8 a.m. Jan.1, meet at the Crowheart Store. For more information contact Susan Hill 307-857-6426 oriolehill@polarfinearts.com.

Pinedale, to be determined. For more information contact Elizabeth Boehm at eboehmphoto@gmail.com.

Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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  1. Dec. 30 – Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count and Tally Party Potluck
    Whether you have 15 minutes to watch birds out your window or hours to walk the count area with the group or on your own, help us with the Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count! Novice birdwatchers welcome.

    Be a field observer with a group: Downtown Post Office lobby, 2100 Capitol Ave., by 7:30 a.m.
    Dress for the weather and bring pencil, notepaper plus thermos, cookies, binoculars and field guide, if you have them. We will divide into groups to visit simultaneously Wyoming Hereford Ranch, High Plains Grasslands Research Station, F.E. Warren and Lions Park. Your group may finish up within a couple of hours.

    Be a field observer on your own.
    You are free to look for birds anywhere within the count circle—see map above. Record numbers of each species you observe and the amount of time and distance you travel—and the kind of transportation you use. Keep track of where and when you saw species of note so we can tell if you counted the same bird or flock as someone else.
    For your report, compile the total number of individuals of each species and include your travel information. Turn in your results at the potluck or call Greg Johnson, CBC coordinator, 634-1056, gjohnson@west-inc.com.