Twenty-five greater yellow legs, flocks of rosy finches, lots of common starlings, two prairie falcons and a screech owl not in a pear tree were among the creatures spotted in the Salt Lake Valley Sunday during the Audubon Society's 91st Christmas bird count.
"The number of some birds was up this year, and some were down, but the weather may have had something to do with it," said Calleen Cox, a regular participant in the annual event. "A lot of birds were probably huddled away in the pine trees out of the storm."But 54 birders did brave the snow and the cold to count every bird they could find within a 7.5-mile radius of Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City. Also, 10 other Audubon groups counted birds in other areas of the state, joining an estimated 42,000 people who did likewise throughout North and South America.
Once the figures are compiled, experts will have some idea of how the hemisphere's bird population is faring.
"It's an important function, because the information is considered a barometer of our environment," Cox said. "It tells us something about how we're doing."
While it's too early to interpret Sunday's count, Cox said it is becoming apparent that urbanization in the valley is taking its toll.
"Urban encroachment is definitely having an impact. The numbers are generally down, and we are seeing changes in habitat and in the types of birds in the valley," she said.
With checklists, bird books and binoculars in hand, the birders split up into teams made up of beginners and experts. Each team was assigned a specific area. Some started as early as 3 a.m., the best time to see an owl. Tracy Aviary's Mark Stackhouse spotted both a screech owl and a great horned owl.
One team counted two peregrine falcons. On the west side of the valley, another team counted "tremendous numbers" of ducks.
"Everybody had a very successful day," Cox said. "We were all cold and tired when we finished, but it was worth it."
The Audubon Society sponsored the first Christmas count in 1900. The Utah affiliate joined the program in 1932. Cox said interest in the Christmas count is growing each year.