PROVO Alton Thygerson couldn't concentrate on his soup: Was that a mountain chickadee fluttering outside his window?
"Does anyone else see that?" the Brigham Young University professor asked, throwing down his spoon mid-bite and eagerly reaching for his binoculars. Several of his friends, huddled around his kitchen table to take respite from a cold day counting birds for the Audubon's 108th Christmas Bird Count, scrambled to the window.
"Where are you looking?" cried one.
"I see it! I see it!" another called out.
Lunchtime or not, if there was a bird in sight, at least one of the more than 40 people who swept Utah County looking for fowl Saturday took note. Bird-watchers had 24 hours to log as many different species and individual birds as they could spot. Some enthusiastic volunteers were on the field by 3 a.m. in hope of spying some owls.
"It gets a little competitive," said Merril Webb, who added up the final tally for the Christmas Bird Count. "We're always looking for that rare bird and comparing notes to figure out who saw the most."
Counters found 99 different species of birds during the course of the day.
Saturday bird-watchers concentrated on a 15-mile circle spanning Provo, Orem and parts of Lindon and Springville. But Utah County's watch is only one of hundreds of Audubon-sponsored bird counts that will take place across the Western Hemisphere during the next two weeks.
Audubon uses the data to track the bird population and develop a watch list of birds that are in danger of extinction.
Initial counts indicated that the bald eagle is thriving in Utah County, Webb said. The bird was just recently removed from the federal list of endangered wildlife.
Only 55 ring-necked pheasants were spotted county-wide, however, which is significantly lower than past years.
"Things are being built and the pheasant population is dropping," Webb said. "They are losing their habitat."
Most of the people who joined in Saturday's count didn't sign up with an environmental agenda in mind, though. Thygerson, who strapped on snowshoes to trudge up Rock Canyon after his mountain-loving feathered friends, said he joined the count for fun.
For him, like many of the volunteer counters, spotting and identifying birds is a year-round hobby. He's traveled as far as Australia to track down a bird.
"Bird watching makes life a lot more interesting," said Milton Moody, a Provo physical therapist who participated in the bird count. "If you like to hike, travel or anything, you're going to see birds and hear their songs. It gives you something extra to talk about."
Moody and his group were assigned to scour the neighborhoods of Provo's east side. It wasn't quite as exciting as Rock Canyon or the area surrounding Utah Lake, he said, but they still "had some great finds."The most exciting find of the day was a Bohemian waxwing, he said. The bird, which is considered "a wanderer," hadn't been spotted in Utah for several years.