Bird watchers look to the skies for Yule count
Birdwatchers are a rare breed.
Who else would show enthusiasm about getting up at an early hour to trudge through snow, dedicating an entire day to searching for birds?
Such was the case Monday for three South Lake Tahoe men and on Sunday for about 10 Carson City-area residents who took part in the National Audubon Society’s 103rd annual Christmas Bird Count.
The North American avian census, held annually between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5, involves volunteers who collect a tally of birds seen and heard in a 15-mile circle. The results are submitted to Audubon to gauge the trends of bird species.
Jack Walters has been coordinating the Carson City count for the Christmas Bird Count since 1983.
He and his teams counted 76 different species Sunday from 7 a.m. until about 4:30 p.m.
A lifelong hunter, Walters began birding 42 years ago.
“I have a great interest in birds,” he said. “I like to watch them. They are beautiful, and each species has a different behavioral pattern. I find them very interesting.”
Chris Tenney, who organized the South Shore count, said the weather dictates the types of birds spotted in Tahoe.
For last year’s count, a snowstorm prompted a cluster of great blue herons and black-crowned night herons to huddle at the creek. Fourteen South Shore participants braved the cold, blowing snow to count 50 species in a 128-square-mile area from Christmas Valley to Cave Rock and west to Taylor Creek.
This year’s sunny, mild conditions brought out small songbirds at Taylor Creek, which Tenney accessed on snowshoes.
“There’s a song sparrow calling,” said Tenney, who suddenly stopped walking to hear the call again. “Chmp, chmp,” a distant noise came out of the trees at the mouth of the creek.
“This is unusual. I think it’s because vegetation is exposed here,” he said, pointing to the sunny bank of the creek while a few red-tailed hawks swooped overhead.
“Birds are not nesting here, and it’s obvious, because the weather is so nice. That’s the extent of it,” Tenney said, stepping into a bald eagle’s winter feeding grounds that is normally off limits to foot traffic. He suggested many species were feeding away from the Taylor Creek marsh.
This season’s South Lake Tahoe count netted 43 species — including four bald eagles, six red-tails, five woodpeckers, a variety of ducks and the more uncommon red-shouldered hawk. Noticeably absent were robins, thrushes and warblers this season.
Tahoe’s checklist includes juncos, gulls, finches and merganser ducks.
“The early cold and snow drives a lot of those birds down slope,” Tenney said of the birding challenges.