The Times-Independent

Think global, bird local

Moab contributes to longstanding community bird census

For the past 39 years, Moab’s dedicated bird watchers have fanned out across a 7.5 mile area each Christmastime to count as many birds as they can see — or hear.

Nick and Marian Eason participated in the first annual Moab Christmas Bird Count in 1985. Photo by Gwen Dilworth

“Every single one is counted,” said Marcy Hafner, organizer of this year’s Christmas Bird Count, an event cosponsored by the Moab Bird Club and the Audubon Society.

Marian Eason participated in this year’s bird count on Dec. 16. She also attended Moab’s first-ever count, in 1985. Back then, there were “no more than a dozen people that were doing it,” she said.

Last year, 62 participants spotted 63 species in “neighborhoods, wetlands, riparian areas and pinyon juniper habitat,” said Hafner.

Notable sightings this year included a common loon, western grebe, bald eagle, golden eagle, merlin, red-naped sapsucker and a great horned owl.

The data that citizen scientists collect is added to an Audubon Society database that is used by scientists to better understand winter bird populations. The census also informs the Audubon Society’s efforts to identify and protect at-risk bird species.

A 2022 report by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative indicated that one in four breeding birds have disappeared in the United States and Canada in the last half century. Seventy species have lost over two thirds of their population.

The count captures some migratory birds settled in their winter habitats, but Hafner said that in mid-December, other birds are still in the late stages of their southern migration.

“This opens up the opportunity to see rare birds that have wandered into the Moab area, such as the northern shrike and rough-legged hawk,” she said.

The event is touted as the longest-running community science bird project in the nation.

The count was created to counter the “Christmas Side-Hunt,” a holiday tradition in which participants competed to kill the most birds and animals in an area. Frank Chapman, an ornithologist and early leader in the Audubon Society, established the “Christmas Bird Census” in 1900 as an alternative to the side-hunt.

The first count consisted of 27 birders in 25 locations from Toronto, Canada to Pacific Grove, California and identified 90 species.

Last year, the event tallied 2,544 species.

Eason said she’s noticed that while the number of species is comparable from year to year, the locations of the birds change.

Fifteen years ago, she saw a collard dove, a species that is not native to North America, in Moab for the first time. “Now, they’re all over the place,” she said.

Collared doves were introduced to the Bahamas in 1974, reached Florida by the 1980s and then rapidly spread across the United States.

Eason said participants don’t have to see a bird to count it. If they can recognize a bird’s call, the bird can be tallied.

“We bird right up until dark,” she said. “One time, a merlin showed up right at five o’clock.”

Hafner said that beyond contributing to important data, the event “highlights the pride of our bird watching community … everyone who takes part, including those counting birds at their backyard feeders, does it for the love of birds.”

“…Knowing what the CBC has contributed to the research of bird populates [adds] a special significance to the holiday season,” she said.