Around Christmas each year, bird-watching enthusiasts from all over the county and state gather together to count birds in the area, an annual tradition since the early 1900s.
Ryan Votta, Montezuma County’s bird count organizer and compiler, said the bird count originally began as a hunting expedition of sorts but now it is a way for resident to enjoy a hobby in the outdoors while keeping tabs on the species of birds that inhabit the area.
“It’s really grown in popularity, especially the last few years,” Votta said. “It’s basically like a citizen science project.”
Although the bird count has occurred since the early 1900s, Votta said it didn’t start in Cortez until 1990. It then ran until 1994 but stopped in 2007 because of a lack of interest. Now, however, the number of participants continues to grow, and the annual Cortez Christmas Bird Count has run for 16 consecutive years.
“We have a pretty good base group of birders that live out in Montezuma County,” Votta said. “We’ve been going strong for the past few years now.”
Votta has been heading the bird count for the past two years, and takes the responsibility of compiling all the information gathered during the bird count to be reported to the regional compiler, who handles about 70 bird count groups statewide.
The compiler tabulates things such as how many different individual birds and species were spotted, how many rare birds, how long volunteers spent in the field and how far people walked/hiked to look for birds among other information.
Each year, the data from past years is compared with the current year to identify trends of birds in the area and to identify new birds that might be making their home in Montezuma County.
The information gathered is then reported to the National Audubon Society, which focuses on bird conservation and protection. December 2022 marked the 123rd year of the Audubon Christmas Bird Count.
Votta noted that many records were set in 2022 for Montezuma County, one of which included the number of participants involved in the count. While 2021 had fewer than 20 participants, 38 were involved in 2022, even though there had been a major snowstorm the day before.
“A lot of people are starting to get interested,” Votta said. “People are saying, ‘Hey, you know, I like birds. I got bird feeders in my yard. I can sign up for this.’”
On Dec. 31, bird count volunteers met at the Cortez Cultural Center at 7:30 a.m. before dividing into teams and heading out to count birds. Votta said that while many of the groups finished their time around noon, many stayed much longer.
“There’s some folks out there that are really into it, and they’re out there until dark,” he said.
Other records were set during the 2022 bird count. In total, volunteers sighted 87 bird species, breaking the 2016 record of 83. They also counted 14,498 individual birds, which was nearly a record as well.
Votta said they saw 1,000 red-winged blackbirds, 1,500 house sparrows, 108 Cassin’s finches, 262 evening grosbeaks, 75 hooded mergansers and 3,000 starlings. They also set a record for raptor sightings with 33 bald eagles, 173 red-tail hawks and 41 American kestrels.
Other records for the county included 731 American robins and a high number of waterfowl such as ducks and geese.
Two rare birds were spotted as well.
Votta said they found a hermit thrush, which became the first of it's kind to be featured on Cortez’s count, a tundra swan at Denny Lake, a greater scaup and a red-breasted merganser.
While winter seems like an odd time to go bird watching, Votta said it's part of the tradition of the bird count, along with keeping track of birds that live in Cortez during the winter that might not be here in the spring and summer.
“Consistency and tradition,” Votta said. “Using that same time frame year and year, they’re able to analyze that data and know that it’s consistent with the same dates.”
“We’re trying to get a good grasp on which birds are here specifically during the wintertime,” he added.
The Durango Bird Club also holds a spring bird count around May.
Votta said bird-watching has been a hobby he has had since he was a kid, and it started because his dad always had bird feeders around their home.
“I remember as a little kid getting my first bird book and pair of binoculars,” Votta said. “It’s pretty neat once you start noticing the different birds and you’re like, ‘Man, look at all this. I had no idea that all these different types of birds are right around here.’”
He said the most memorable bird he has seen so far was a tufted flycatcher he saw while in Arizona with his brother last year. “They hadn’t really been seen in the United States because it’s a species that lives in Mexico, so that was pretty cool,” he said.
Votta says more and more young people are starting to get involved in the hobby of bird watching.
“It’s almost like a scavenger hunt,” he said. He pointed out that it’s a great hobby for those with a competitive nature because you can always be trying to find birds you haven’t seen to add to your list.
There’s even a bird-watching app called eBird that allows users to see which birds have been spotted within a 10-mile radius of their location, even giving notifications of rare bird sightings.
App users can report their bird sightings daily and use that as a way to find birds they haven’t seen yet.
Votta said that those who wish to be part of the count but don’t necessarily want to pair up in teams or roam around the county can still participate. He noted that some people who signed up reported birds they found on their property or hanging out at their bird feeders at home.
“If you’re a homebody or whatever, you can still participate,” he said.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife also will hold an “Introduction to Birding Workshop” on Saturday, April 22. The workshop will take place at the Durango Fish Hatchery from 7 to 9 a.m. To register or to get more information, contact Tiffany Hood at email@example.com.
“The first hour of our course will be held at the wildlife museum. During this first hour, students will learn the steps to identifying birds which include: What is the habitat? What size is the bird? Observing the bird’s body, beak and feet shape, identifying distinctive features of the bird (markings, color, etc.) and what is the bird's behavior. During the second hour of the course, students will actively try to identify birds in three locations: Animas River, Huck Finn Pond and Rotary Park,” Hood said.