Avid bird watchers in La Plata County spotted a record number of species this year based on record-keeping that goes back more than 70 years.
Every December since 1949, volunteers for the National Audubon Society’s annual bird count scour a 7.5-mile radius around Pastorius Reservoir on Florida Mesa within a 24-hour period, recording a count of birds and their species.
Typically, volunteers will tally species in the mid to low 80s, said John Bregar, a member of the Durango Bird Club. This year, however, a total of 89 species were recorded on Dec. 20, he said.
“We had a really good count day,” he said.
The annual bird count also broke another record: the number of people who volunteered, about 47 people, which may also be a factor in the high number of species tallied.
“The more people you have out, the more birds you’re going to find,” he said.
Bregar speculated the increased interest in the count may be because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has people traveling less and going outdoors more.
“The number of people that volunteered to help out surprised me,” he said.
Still, there were some interesting bird behaviors of note, Bregar said.
About 11 sandhill cranes were spotted high in the sky migrating south. Typically, the cranes will spend the winter around Delta. But sometimes, they decide they’ve had enough of the cold and head for Arizona or New Mexico.
At Lake Nighthorse, where city officials allow bird counters access for the day, several duck species were spotted that aren’t typically in Southwest Colorado at this time of year.
Bird enthusiasts have noted that in recent years the annual count has been significantly altered since Lake Nighthorse was constructed. Now, species like white-winged scoters can be seen diving for the plentiful fish in the lake.
“There’s a lot of fish in that reservoir ... that attracts a lot of diving ducks,” Bregar said.
Volunteers also noted the unusually high number of Steller’s jay in the area, about 169. Bregar was unsure why numbers were so high, other than to speculate there was a good natural food crop.
Other notable finds included nine pine grosbeaks, a high-mountain bird, and three hermit thrush, which typically are gone at this time of year. Volunteers also spotted nearly 230 Eurasian collared doves, an invasive species.
As far as birds typically here this time of year that weren’t spotted, Bregar pointed out the red crossbill and the northern shoveler.
Bregar said it is important to hold the count, as other communities do, because that can help explain why certain birds are or aren’t in a region. The information goes to the National Audubon Society’s database.
“That’s why we count,” he said. “Are they in trouble? Were they somewhere else?”
In September, it was reported that birds were dying in mass numbers, though at the time, researchers didn’t know why. Recent lab results from the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center ruled out disease, parasites and poisoning.
Instead, it was likely a number of factors.
“The laboratory results are very informative but did not identify a single definitive cause of mortality,” Kelly Mower, wildlife disease specialist for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, said in a statement. “However, they did find that nearly all birds were severely emaciated.”
Researchers say the birds showed signs of severe starvation, so when a cold snap hit the Southwest around Labor Day weekend, some birds were unable to survive. Others may have become disoriented and hit objects.
However, those mortalities, Bregar said, would not affect Durango’s count, because the birds that were dying were migrating species and would have left the region by this time of year.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story said about 40 volunteers participated in the bird count. About 47 volunteers participated.