New star of the show in Christmas bird count |

New star of the show in Christmas bird count

While paparazzi were lining Aspen’s ski slopes hoping to spot an elusive celebrity last month, a different type of seldom-seen star emerged downvalley.

The star of this show had a black hood, red chest and white belly. He might not have the stature of [insert your favorite Aspen celebrity visitor here], but he caused a stir among the members of the Roaring Fork chapter of the Audubon Society who were lucky enough to see him.

The rose-breasted grosbeak stole the show at the chapter’s annual Christmas bird count, which actually took place on Dec. 18.

“Nobody remembers seeing one at Christmas,” said Mary Harris, a midvalley birder and member of the board of directors of the Audubon Society’s local chapter.

“The rose-breasted grosbeak is occasionally seen in the spring – it is an eastern species – during migration season,” the chapter’s report on its count says. “This is the first count on the Christmas Bird Count.”

The website for the Cornell Lab or Ornithology shows the Colorado mountains are on the on the far western edge of the rose-breasted grosbeak’s migration area. It spends winters in Central America, northern South America and Cuba. Its summer breeding grounds are the U.S. Midwest and Northeast as well as central Canada. It’s a rare visitor to the Colorado mountains.

Audubon Society chapters throughout the western hemisphere conduct the bird counts close to Christmas every year to supply data that shows how bird species are faring.

The Roaring Fork chapter has conducted a Christmas bird count for the 35 years since its founding and a spring count for roughly 25 years, said Linda Vidal, a longtime member of the board of directors.

Harris, who participates in the counts when she isn’t traveling for the holidays, said members drive to different spots in their assigned areas. “You get out there before it gets light and you look and listen,” she said.

They count the different species they see as well as the numbers of birds of the various species. Prior to 1900, there was a different tradition – the Christmas Side Hunt, where people would choose sides and have a competition to see which one could bag the most birds, Harris noted. Early members of the national Audubon Society altered the practice in 1900 with the Christmas Bird Count, which is now in its 111th year.

“One of the questions I’m always asked is, ‘How are the birds doing?'” Vidal said.

There isn’t an easy answer. Her instincts as a experienced birder in the area tell her many species are in decline. She’s cautious to say anything definitive because there are so many variables.

For example, one year during the Christmas bird count it was minus 20 degrees and Vidal worked alone. Other years have a dozen or so birders scanning the midvalley during a count. The participation level makes a difference.

“The more eyes you’ve got, the more you see,” Vidal said.

Vidal’s group scanned a 15-mile diameter circle that engulfed the Roaring Fork Valley floor around Ranch at Roaring Fork, up County Road 100 into Missouri Heights. Further downvalley, three birders conducted a count concentrated around Glenwood Springs. The counters’ numbers there were thinned by illness this year.

There’s no longer a count conducted in Aspen because of lack of interest, Vidal said.

The chapter’s report of the count said 60 different species were spotted last month. “This was quite low compared with similar counts in the past that usually found in the mid-70s, with highs around 82,” the report said.

Some of the names on the bird count report are familiar even to casual wildlife watchers. There were the ever-present Canada goose, mallard duck, wild turkey, great blue heron, bald eagle, red-tailed hawk, peregrine falcon, American robin, black-capped chickadee and, of course, various jays, goldfinches, crows, ravens and blackbirds.

But there were also some surprises beyond the Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Vidal said. One of the groups spotted an osprey, which isn’t rare for the area but it’s rare for the Christmas count. Usually osprey migrate out of the Roaring Fork Valley well before December, she said.

Vidal’s group spotted a Barrow’s goldeneye, a medium-sized black-and-white diving duck. “They’re very rare across the country,” Vidal said.

The breeding males are described as having a purplish-black head with a bright, crescent-shaped white patch on side of face at base of bill.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology shows their year-round habitat northwest of Colorado and their summer breeding grounds in western Canada into Alaska. The Colorado mountains show up as possible winter habitat.

Vidal said she and other birders believe a population of Barrow’s goldeneye stays put in the Roaring Fork Valley when food and water is available during winters rather than migrate. They go to the Flat Tops north of the valley for summer breeding, she said.

The report of the Christmas bird count is filled with other intriguing names, such as the pied-billed grebe; the sharp-shinned hawk, which can be seen ambushing birds at feeders; the spotted towhee; and the tufted-headed juniper titmouse.

The local birders typically see more species during an annual spring count, when birds have returned as the weather warms or they are migrating through. Vidal said her group spotted 83 species one spring.

Her fascination with birds takes her on travels around the country and other parts of the world. “There’s birds everywhere no matter where you go,” she said.

Harris said the counts, particularly when compiled over numerous years, are valuable as a conservation tool. The Audubon Society’s counts show trends for bird species and the birds are also good indicators of the health of other species.

“It’s not easy to go out and count bobcats and wood rats,” Harris said.

Birders interested in joining the local chapter can visit or call Mary Harris at 963-0319. In addition to the counts, the chapter sponsors various programs during the year.

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