On New Year’s morning, it’s minus 15 degrees in eastern Wyoming. But the frigid temperature isn’t deterring the 16 volunteers taking part in the annual Bates Hole Christmas Bird Count. By 7:30 a.m. they’ve gathered in the living room of Charlie Scott’s farm house, making a plan for the full day of birding over cups of coffee.
Charlie and his brother Stacey Scott pore over a laminated map of the 15-mile-wide area they’ll cover in vehicles and on foot. “There might be something, you see right here where it crosses Little Red Creek, this might be worth exploring a little a bit on foot,” Charlie says.
The brothers know Wyoming and its birds well. They started birding with their dad, who founded the Wyoming Audubon Society chapter, when they were kids, and Charlie has been running the Bates Hole count since 1978. The National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count is a 119-year tradition in which community scientists throughout the Western Hemisphere tally as many birds as possible, gathering invaluable information that helps track avian populations today and provides valuable data for various research projects, including climate models that forecast how birds will do in the future.
Over the last sips of coffee before heading out the door, the Scotts banter about what they've seen in previous years and expect to see today.
“We do have some Rough-legged Hawks in, but not as many as we’ve had in the past,” Charlie predicts, pointing on the map to the area where he’s seen the large raptors, which breed on the Arctic tundra. A recent dip in the rabbit population here, he explains, might explain the scarcity.
“It’s been an interesting count over the years,” Charlie says. “It's interesting to watch the birds fluctuate.” They see Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches during tough winters, for example. They didn’t spot a single raven for the first 15 years; now the species is a regular on their tally sheet. And this year, he says, they might add a Blue Jay for the first time.
If the participants are lucky, they’ll see the iconic Greater Sage-Grouse that tough out the winter consuming sagebrush leaves that are toxic to many other animals. “We have a great deal of sage-grouse habitat within the circle,” Charlie says. The area is also home to an array of raptors this time of year, including Bald and Golden Eagles.
Another count takes place less than a 30-minute drive away, in Casper, but many of the attendees who flock to this event come for the unique experience that the rural setting provides. “It’s just different being in town,” says Jason Finkle, who is originally from the East Coast and has learned many new birds since moving out West in 2010 to work for Casper Community College. He’s participated in the Casper Count, too, but he enjoys the variety out at Bates Hole. “They are not all feeder birds."
For Finkle, last year’s highlight was spotting Wilson’s Snipes by a geothermal pool. “It’s this weird little fluff ball of a bird that’s got this long beak and he should not have been out where he was,” he says. “And we saw three of them.”
Finkle joins Charlie Scott’s group and, after a brief drive, they set out on foot, weaving between sagebrush and snowdrifts to count Tree Sparrows and Black-billed Magpies perching on Scott’s neighbors’ cattle. Birds, he explains to the less experienced members of the group, are more likely to be found next to open water sources that aren’t iced over. They look around irrigation ditches and along the banks of Stinking Creek.
A couple of hours and many Canada Geese later, they crest a ridge and Finkle suddenly asks the party to stop. Not because he saw a sage-grouse or some unexpected bird, but simply to appreciate the solace of Wyoming’s open spaces. Everyone is quiet for a few moments. There is no sight of any other humans from up here, or any active wildlife. But then someone points out marks in the sparkling white snow. Rabbit tracks stop abruptly amid a mess of powder. A dive-bombing raptor, the group surmises, probably got its dinner.
After a quick chili lunch—and chance to warm up—at Scott’s house, Stacey Scott drives a group of four younger, less experienced birders to an area an hour away. Midway there, he pulls off the highway to identify a Ferruginous Hawk on a power line. While the group watches the large raptor through binoculars, a newer birder says she’s never seen a sage-grouse. Stacey knows this landscape so well that he’s fairly confident he can find some of the stout birds, which camouflage well amid the sagebrush and snow. So off they go in search of sage-grouse. The birds used to appear in the nearby Casper count, but haven’t been tallied there since 2006.
The group visits a long-abandoned log cabin where Scott once spied the elusive birds. None are present today.
Scott is undeterred. He shepherds the group back into the truck and drives slowly on back roads, everyone scanning the landscape. Suddenly, someone spots tiny tracks in the snow. Excitedly and quietly, everyone hops out of the truck into the cold. The sun is setting and twilight gives everything a peach hue against the white backdrop.
Below a ridge huddle 10 sage-grouse, barely visible amid the snowcapped sagebrush.
“We are lucky to have the snow last night,” says Scott, beaming. “You couldn’t ask for a better day.”
As the sun sets, everyone gathers back at the house to feast on lasagna and broccoli cheddar soup provided by Charlie and Stacey’s niece. The volume of voices rises as everyone swaps stories of the day, including one about a tenacious wader. A Great Blue Heron is apparently sticking out the winter at the same geothermal pool where the birders spotted the snipes last year, instead of winging it south or west.
“Nobody must have told him [it’s winter],” Finkle remarks to a round of laughter.
Such discoveries are the reward for venturing out into this vast, rugged landscape in the dead of winter in search of birds—and part of what lures Finkle, the Scotts, and others to participate in the Bates Hole count year after year.
“You know, the aha! moments, you just never know what you’re going to find,” Finkle says. “If you don’t go out and look for them, you are never going to see them.”