CODY, Wyo. — If intelligence can be assigned to birds, then the ducks and geese were smart, taking cover on the water in the canyon below.
Overhead, a dove attempted flight but hit the Wyoming wind and was pushed across the prairie like a kite off its string. Who knows where it finally landed?
Grace Nutting got a glimpse of the wind-driven bird before it departed from view. She turned her vision back to the water, counting the mallards from the buffleheads, the lesser scaups from the northern pintails.
“You can’t really understand a place until you’ve been watching it for at least 20 years,” said Nutting, turning away from the wind. “It can change in just five years. There are so many factors to birding.”
Nutting hit the fields Saturday for the 112th annual Christmas Bird Count. On this blustery Saturday morning, she joined 13 fellow birders along the Shoshone River, covering 17 routes over 15 square miles.
The bird count, which represents one of the longest-running wildlife census efforts in the world, is conducted each year by citizen scientists across the United States, Canada and Latin America.
When combined with other surveys, the results help biologists determine how bird populations have changed over the past century, and how they’re now responding to shifts in habitat and climate.
“I’ve seen massive changes,” Nutting said while scanning the river. “We’re getting things like snipe and marsh brand that we had not seen. We also have the Eurasian collared dove. Some of it is the weather.”
Nutting suggests what many birders have known for years — subtle changes are taking place in both the weather and the winter distribution of North America’s birds.
Their suppositions aren’t based on hunches. According to the Audubon Society, 177 bird species have shown a major shift north over the past 40 years. In that time, January temperatures over the U.S. have increased nearly 5 degrees.
“That’s a horned lark,” Nutting said. “This is unusual for them. You wouldn’t see horned larks up here 10 years ago.”
After dark on Christmas Eve, Nutting joined her fellow birders in Cody to record their observations. They sat around a table and called out their observations.
The tally included 12 chukars, one Clark’s nutcracker and four great-horned owls. They noted nine bald eagles, 14 golden eagles, 37 rough-legged hawks and five northern harriers.
Missing from this year’s count were the screech owls, the pinion jays, the gray jays, the western meadowlarks and the red-bearded nuthatch. They saw no gossawks, no Bohemian waxwings and no hairy woodpeckers.
“I had a lot of people saying it was so cold, they expected to see the birds just pop out,” said Joyce Cicco, the keeper of local Christmas Bird Count records going back to 1985. “But in a lot of areas, they didn’t see as many birds as they expected to.”
The birders are quick to say that one year doesn’t represent a trend. Storms can affect the counts, as can other factors, like the wind.
But the bird count has been taking place for 112 years now — 26 years along the Shoshone River in the Bighorn Basin. It’s long enough to observe population shifts, and to record imperiled species before it’s too late.
In the 1980s, the birders note, the Christmas Bird Count helped document a decline of wintering populations of the American black duck. Conservation measures were put into effect to reduce hunting pressure on the species.
Birders across Wyoming are looking for similar conservation victories. Nineteen counts were reviewed last year in the state, recording 115 species. Montana recorded 133 species last year on 32 counts.
“I’ve only been doing it a few years,” said John McGee, who participated in this year’s count. “I’ve always been interested in birds and want to know more about what’s here. I’ve lived here all my life, and I’m just trying to learn more as I go.”