Western Water News

The Exceptional Christmas Bird Counts on Great Salt Lake

A festive mix of birds and people

“There is a stripy chicken-like bird back here, holding its neck up and waving it around!” said an exuberant first-time Christmas Bird Count participant.

The unconventional description was good enough for us to know exactly what she had seen: an American Bittern, which turned out to be the “bird of the day” for this specific Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge circle group.  American Bitterns usually migrate south out of Utah into southern Nevada, Arizona and Mexico for the winter, but if the winter is mild enough they have been known to overwinter in Utah in small numbers.

Anyone who takes part in one of Audubon’s 2,500+ Christmas Bird Count (CBC) circles in the Western Hemisphere knows that from year-to-year, wintering bird populations are dynamic. Each Christmas count results in a unique list of bird species and numbers, depending on climatic conditions, habitat condition and food availability. But also unique is the assemblage of fellow Audubon members, wildlife enthusiasts, outdoors people and volunteers who congregate each year from December 14th through January 5th to participate in the largest annual community science data collection event the world has ever seen.

Utah is no exception—I decided to participate in three of Utah’s 12 counts within the Great Salt Lake Basin area (statewide, Utah has 27 totalcounts) to get to know some of the long term group leaders and counters, and to see some of the new faces that would be taking part in their first ever CBCs.  The individuals ranged from Audubon members who have participated and lead multiple groups for decades, to the first-timer who spotted the American Bittern. This year, some of the counts had more community scientists than ever; others had a hard time getting volunteers to brave the cold of winter on New Year’s Day. Nevertheless, Utah CBCs drew volunteers and attention throughout the state. Indeed, the Audubon Christmas Bird Count and the Jordan River Circle was highlighted in a Salt Lake Tribune article, “Along Utah’s Jordan River, birders of a feather count together at yuletide”.

On the three CBC’s in which I took part (Salt Lake City, Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, and the Jordan River), our groups spotted 73 bird species and 11,427 individuals. The Provo group, the oldest CBC in Utah (first counted in 1904), reported 98 species in 2018.  Some historical counts have hit over 100 species (103, Logan 2014). Great Salt Lake and its watersheds, even in the dead of winter, provide a wide variety of habitats and support an astonishing number of wintering bird numbers and species. Come join us next year and for all of our bird counts throughout 2019.

CBC highlight sightings (only from the UTJR, UTBR, and UTSL circles):

American Bittern:  Out of normal winter range, but known to overwinter in mild years.

Black-crowned Night Heron: Out of normal winter range, but known to overwinter in mild years.

Great Egret:  Out of normal winter range, but known to overwinter in mild years.

Bewick’s Wren:  Northern limits of range in Utah.

Swamp Sparrow:  Overwintering population small but consistent.

Harris’s Sparrow:  Overwintering population small but consistent.

Cackling Goose (minima): Most uncommon of CAGO subspecies overwintering in Utah.

Bullock’s Oriole: Out of normal winter range, not known to overwinter in Utah.

Black Phoebe:   North of normal range, non-migratory species.

Say’s Phoebe: North of normal winter range, individuals known to overwinter.

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