Bernie McHugh and his bird-counting companions took to the dike along the Snake River north of Emily’s Pond in 2011 and found themselves looking for wildlife in conditions he remembers as “bloody cold, snowing like hell.”
It wasn’t the kind of day that convinces people that bird-watching is the hobby for them.
“In three hours at 5 above we saw three species, 11 birds,” he said during December’s counting expedition. “The birds were like, ‘No way, forget it.’”
On Dec. 16 the annual Christmas Bird Count done by members of the Jackson Hole Bird and Nature Club and other wild bird aficionados found conditions much better: overcast but with temperatures in the 20s. And, it turned out, with the late-arriving winter there were plenty of winged creatures still in the area going about their bird business.
Tim Griffith was out for his third Jackson count, but this was his 53rd overall after an early beginning inspired by his grandmother.
“She was the one who got me started when I was 10 years old,” he said.
Griffith later owned a franchise of Wild Birds Unlimited, a birding business, in south Indiana. When McHugh told Griffith that he had dreamed the night before of a chestnut mandible toucan, Griffith said, “Call me if you see that bird today.”
Also on hand was Tricia O’Connor, the supervisor of the Bridger-Teton National Forest, and her husband, Keith Rush, a former forester for the Nature Conservancy. They had in tow a neighbour kid, 12-year-old Reed Ibarguen, who got his own early start in North Carolina before moving to Jackson.
“We just had a lot of birds in my hometown,” he said. “I got into it.”
And there were John and Kay Modi, who split time between here and Houston, where their house survived Hurricane Harvey’s destruction this summer, but as Kay Modi recalled, they looked outside at the rising water and saw a pelican seeking a fish take a nosedive into their flooded front yard.
Kay Modi was the real birder, John Modi said, and he “became a birder by default” following her around.
About 60 people turned out for this year’s Jackson Hole count, up from 33 last year. They were divided into small groups and assigned to survey areas designated within 15 miles of town. Their job was to identify bird species and, as well as they could, actually count how many they spotted.
The Christmas count goes back to 1900, when Dr. Frank Chapman, the founder of what was to become Audubon magazine, started it. His suggestion of a count evolved and supplanted a traditional bird hunt — or slaughter — and under Audubon Society auspices it grew into a way to judge the health and distribution of wild birds.
The local story, according to longtime birder and News&Guide “Far Afield” columnist Bert Raynes, is that naturalists Olaus and Mardy Murie and Grand Teton National Park Supervisor Sam Woodring organized the first count in the early 1930s.
A PLEASANT SURPRISE
The count, whatever its local origin, had become a regular event by 1967, when a Jackson Hole Guide story said 22 searchers counted 1,733 birds representing 44 species. The census included a significant number of hawks and grouse, which were scarce this year. The common birds then, as now, seemed to be ravens, magpies, mallards and house sparrows. Trumpeter swans were also abundant in 1967.
The 1976 count, reported in the Jackson Hole News, was done by 32 people who saw a total of 1,419 birds of 51 species.
Katharine Cody, a contract naturalist hired by Grand Teton Association, joined McHugh and his wife, botanist Frances Clark, as they took to their count area on the National Elk Refuge. Cody had scouted the route the day before and hadn’t been encouraged: Birds weren’t co-operating. There was worry that ice on the ponds and a lack of thermals to entice hovering raptors would mean fewer birds.
“I was a little concerned about today,” Cody said Dec. 16. “There wasn’t much out here yesterday.”
But things had changed overnight. At the ponds near the Miller House and out past the west side of Miller Butte there were plenty of water birds.
“One Canada goose, one trumpeter swan,” McHugh said, peering through binoculars.
“Two swans, for sure,” Clark said, peering herself. “Wait, three.”
“One Barrow’s goldeneye,” Cody said.
“There’s a gadwall out there,” McHugh said.
Clark scribbled down the names and numbers.
There and at ponds on the north side of Miller Butte there were also mallards, buffleheads, a greenwing teal, pintails, a couple of hooded mergansers, a ruddy duck and others. Up on the north slope of Miller Butte there were about 40 bighorn sheep, also recorded in spite of their flightless nature.
Toward the north things changed when the group came across the carcass of an elk left by hunters. It was swarmed by about 50 ravens, the charcoal birds happily hopping around and pecking at the feast, elbowing each other, rising when startled in a swirl of black. Above them, dotting a line of cottonwoods, about 25 bald eagles that had apparently had their fill were now digesting and enjoying the raven riot below.
A mile to the north two more carcasses were similarly thick with hungry ravens, about 80, and another 20 or more eagles perched in the cottonwoods. An occasional crow or magpie winged over. Far up on a ridge to the east, nearly invisible, about 150 elk seemed to be waiting for the sun to break through the grey.
BIRDS, EXOTIC AND OTHERWISE
Other counters found different varieties of birds. Susan Patla, nongame biologist with Wyoming Game and Fish, and Joan Lucas, a longtime birder, tallied 25 species in their area, which encompassed parts of Wilson around Fish Creek, plus five species at the feeders in Lucas’ yard in Wilson, which will be submitted separately.
Lucas’ feeders drew two kinds of chickadees, evening grosbeaks, Eurasian collared doves and redpolls. The redpolls particularly pleased Patla. Because they’d been hanging around Lucas’ feeders she made that the first stop of the day.
“Those were the first of the year for me, and they’re such a beautiful species,” she said.
Their excursion earlier this month took them onto private properties whose owners had given permission, including Snake River Ranch.
Some of the species were the common ones, like the widespread and numerous magpies, ravens, black-capped and mountain chickadees.
“Every bird counts,” Lucas said.
But they also saw swans, a bald eagle and a rough-legged hawk, which Patla was glad to see.
“We don’t always get those,” she said of the hawk.
Crossing creeks, Patla suggested keeping close watch for American dippers, also known as water ouzels, and sure enough, they spotted several.
“The more pairs of eyes, the more you see, that’s for sure,” Patla said.
Other water birds spotted by Patla and Lucas that day included gadwalls, buffleheads, Barrow’s goldeneyes, common goldeneyes and ring-necked ducks.
A couple of belted kingfishers made it on the list, too.
“You never want to miss a kingfisher,” Lucas said.
Hearing a bird counts as a sighting, and that’s how one species first entered Lucas and Patla’s tally sheet.
Along Blue Mountain Road there was a mix of aspens, conifers and sage. Patla hooted softly.
“Sometimes when you make a noise like a pygmy owl, birds will come in,” she said. “They will mob a predator.”
Then she made a different noise, the nasal yank of a red-breasted nuthatch, and waited a second. An answering call came from the trees, and a red-breasted nuthatch joined this year’s Christmas Count.
At Dick and Karen Hobbins’ home the group added a few more species, including goldfinch, Stellar’s jay and downy woodpecker.
At neighbours Annie Band and Jon Hunt’s home, a white-breasted nuthatch joined the list, and so did more red-breasted nuthatches. Then a Clark’s nutcracker swooped onto a suet basket, hung upside down and dug in.
Along Fish Creek Road, Patla and Lucas came across about 90 elk.
“We haven’t seen this before on a Christmas bird count,” Patla said.
Farther up Fish Creek Road a red-tailed hawk was spotted, along with a couple more bald eagles. Looking in the distance at the Shooting Star pond the pair could make out a 100 or so waterfowl, but by then the weather had reduced visibility to the point where not all the species could be determined.
The person doing the actual tallying in each group was to get the findings in order, and also to include other reports in the days after the count, which can be officially included. A final, official tally is expected in about a week.