Every year around Christmas time, local residents join tens of thousands of people across the Western Hemisphere to record all the birds they see or hear within a 15-mile radius.
The Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count started in the 1900s and has been going on for more than 120 years.
The annual citizen science project helps researchers get a better idea of how birds are doing in the face of threats such as climate change and human development.
This year’s Christmas Bird Count, which started Dec. 14, runs through Jan. 5.
The Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES) and the Roaring Fork Audubon Society held their counts Dec. 18 and 19.
On the Sunday before Christmas, local resident Liz Bokram stood in front of an employee-housing complex in Snowmass Village and pointed her binoculars at a nearby tree.
“Can you see him?” Bokram said in a hushed tone. “He’s gone around the back. It’s a male hairy.”
A hairy woodpecker, that is.
Bokram was able to identify the woodpecker as male because of the small red tuft near the crown of his head.
She has been doing the Christmas Bird Count in the valley for about 13 years now.
“It really brings me to a peaceful spot in my life,” she said. “I used to run up and down 14,000-foot peaks and never stop and never really check out the wildlife. And now with birding, it's all about what you see, you hear and also the feeling.”
Birders count species in the upper valley with ACES
Bokram and a small group of women have been assigned by ACES to count as many birds as they can in the Snowmass Village and Woody Creek areas.
“As soon as you go out and just key into the birds, everything else, you know, leaves your mind,” said Missy Prudden, a local teacher and artist.
Most of the women in the group have been birding together for years — and they look after one another.
“I had broken my arm this spring and Ann came and picked me up and drove me to her apartment and sat me by the window to watch all the birds,” Prudden said.
Prudden’s friend Ann Larson peered through her binoculars just a few feet away and smiled at the memory. This is Larson’s fifth or sixth Christmas Bird Count.
“I sometimes call myself a ‘pity birder’ because I go places and the birds take pity and come over,” she said. “It's like, ‘Oh, she's been waiting there a long time, maybe I better check this out.’”
Aspen resident Judy Wender, the newest birder in the group, said it’s never too late to start.
“It is a lifelong thing, and hopefully I live long enough to be able to name some birds,” she said, laughing. “You start at 70 and it's hard!”
Birding helped Wender slow down, much as it did with Bokram.
“It is amazing that I have lived this long and not stopped and really paid attention to what was around me,” Wender said. “So, with birding, you do stop and it is peaceful.”
History of the Christmas Bird Count
But, according to Larson, the Christmas Bird Count was not always so peaceful.
“It was started in England, and all the royalty would go out on a huge hunt,” Larson said. “They would just kill anything they saw pretty much. It wasn't just birds — you know, deer, probably foxes.”
This holiday tradition was known as the Christmas “Side Hunt,” and whoever brought in the biggest bounty won, but on Christmas Day in 1900, a well-known ornithologist proposed a new holiday tradition: a "Christmas Bird Census."
The idea was to count and observe birds rather than eat them or hunt them for identification. Now, the data collected every year is used to study the health of bird populations. And the more people who participate, the better the data.
Roaring Fork Audubon's downvalley count
On Dec. 18, another group of birders with Roaring Fork Audubon gathered outside the Third Street Center in Carbondale for their annual count.
The temperature was only 2 degrees, and the sun was just hitting the top of Mt. Sopris, but everyone was ready to get out there and start counting.
One birder on the scene was local student George Waaler. This was his second Christmas Bird Count, and he was hoping to see a northern pygmy-owl this year.
“It has a brown head with little white dots on it, and it has a white breast and belly with black streaks,” he said.
Fellow birder Allen Levantin also started birding as a kid growing up in the Bronx, a borough in New York City. Levantin has been doing the Christmas Bird Count for 40 or 50 years now.
“I started as a Boy Scout, and that's where I got interested,” he said. “Many years later, I did what is called ‘a big year,’ where you spend the whole year looking to find as many species as possible.”
Levantin would never say this, but according to his fellow birders, he’s kind of a big deal.
Steve Martin plays him in the film adaptation of a book called “The Big Year.” It’s the story of Levantin and several other birders competing to set the North American record for the most bird species spotted in 1998.
“There were three of us who did it that year,” Levantin said. “I saw 711. The fellow who saw the most at that time saw 742.”
Levantin may not have won the competition, but it hasn’t stopped him from counting birds.
A small group of birders piled into his car at the Third Street Center. They were tasked with covering several areas from Carbondale to Glenwood Springs, starting with the nearby nature park.
On the way, the group stopped to pay homage to the former house of longtime local Dave Clark.
Mark Fuller, who is with Roaring Fork Audubon, says Clark was an avid birder and naturalist.
“There are literally hundreds of people in this valley whose introduction to the natural world was through Dave Clark,” Fuller said. “He was great.”
After a quiet stop outside the house, the birders headed on to the nature park. It didn’t take them long to spot their first birds.
“So, up in the tree up there, there's a red-tailed hawk and there's a raven flying past it,” said Dick Filby, a local birder who leads winter bird outings in the Snowmass Ski Area.
Filby, who grew up birding in England, has a keen eye.
“Accompanying the red-tailed hawk, there's a bunch of American crows and black-billed magpies,” Filby said.
Fellow birder and wildlife biologist Ted Robertson keeps track of the total count using a birding app called “eBird,” which was developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
“So those are black-billed magpies,” he said. “I'm recording everything, so I repeat everything just to confirm.”
After counting several new species in Carbondale, the group headed to their next stop: the Aspen Glen neighborhood.
The bald eagle protection area
Aspen Glen resident Sibel Tekce welcomed the birders to her home along the Roaring Fork River.
“So we can start with the Eagle buffer zone and then we can go to the other side of the river over there, if you’re in the mood,” said Tekce.
There are lots of birds to see here, but Tekce’s favorite are the bald eagles, which used to nest right in front of her house.
The nest has moved a little ways upriver now, but Tekce said the eagles still come here to fish.
“I used to watch them every day, and I ended up learning to love them,” she said. “This leaning tree is their favorite tree because right underneath the hunting is the best.”
For decades, this area — known as the “Eagle buffer zone” — was protected habitat for bald eagles, but after the nest moved upstream, the Aspen Glen Golf Company, which owns some of the land in the buffer area, requested that the protections be lifted for residential development.
Tekce and other concerned residents gathered hundreds of signatures throughout the valley, as well as support from wildlife specialists, to stop the development.
Eventually, they persuaded the Garfield County Commissioners to keep the area protected, but the company can still reapply later. For now, Tekce continues to enjoy the company of the resident eagles.
“You see that stem right there — that's where he stands and looks down at the river,” she said.
The bald eagles were nowhere in sight, but Levantin and the others spotted a gaggle of geese in the Roaring Fork River.
“Now these are very common birds, but there are 98 Canada geese there,” Levantin said.
A short moment later, Robertson, the biologist, spotted a nuthatch shimmying down a tree trunk. And Filby, from England, set up a large telescope to get a better view of a belted-kingfisher perched on the opposite bank.
“Anytime the ponds freeze up, the kingfishers move to the river, and when the river freezes up, they head south,” Filby said. “Should we walk a little bit down the river to see what else we can see?”
A successful Christmas Bird Count
Farther down the river, the trio counted two green-winged teals floating along with several mallard ducks and an elusive American dipper bobbing in and out of the frigid water.
The day was far from over for these intrepid birders, but they headed back to compare notes with the rest of the group over lunch at the Village Smithy.
For Roaring Fork Audubon organizer Mark Fuller, it was another great day of birding in the books.
“I've been here 50 years, and I started birding before I got here, and I'm still doing it,” he said.
According to Fuller, this year’s downvalley count was a success.
“I mean, you never quite know until you get the data, but we had a good group of people,” he said. “We had experienced birders and we had some new birders, which is always fun. It was a beautiful day.”
The last step in the Christmas Bird Count is to compile and submit the local data to the National Audubon Society. That way, scientists and birders can help protect these feathered friends into the future.