Counting on Legacy

 by Alex Harper

The sun had just broken the eastern horizon when a group of birders gathered at the Las Vegas Paiute Golf Resort. Cold and a silence enveloped the landscape surrounding the parking lot where we had met. Bundled in layers of base layers, jackets, thick hats and fleece-lined gloves, we convened in freezing weather to participate in the Corn Creek Christmas Bird Count. 

The Corn Creek count is one of six different Christmas Bird Counts, or “CBCs”, that the Red Rock Audubon chapter conducts in about a two-week period on either side of Christmas day. The local participation is part of a much larger tradition of counting birds for Audubon chapters across North America; this counting season is the one-hundred twenty-third year in history, making this the longest-running community science project in the world. The data collected by participants over time is used by scientists to observe trends in species population changes or range shifts and is powerful tool for community engagement. It also gives us a reason to huddle in the cold with friends and strangers, observe birds, and be outdoors.  

John Hiatt, our party leader, firmly gave us our early morning plan. We would move as a group, following a route that strategically passed waterbodies and shrubby habitats. We’d have a designated counter tallying identified species and the numbers of individuals for those species. We would keep track of weather data, the among of distance covered, and the numbers of people involved in the count. This is protocol for a standardized survey. With permission to survey by the golf course, we began shortly after seven am.

As the sun warmed the landscape, it came to life. Looking out over various waterbodies, people called out and split up the tasks of counting birds, relaying the information to CJ, our warmly mannered list keeper. “Did you catch the Ring-necked Ducks at the far end?”, “is that a Greater amongst the Lesser Scaups?”, and of course “who has a count on the number of coots?”. We searched through a big flock of Snow Geese for the similar and less commonly seen Ross’s Goose, and a unique color morph of an American Wigeon, sometimes called a “Storm Wigeon” caused some excitement. This wigeon’s bright, creamy-colored cheek and neck sets it apart from the more typical wigeons, and this bird was noticeably different even from a distance. American Pipits and Western Meadowlarks fed along grassy courses. House Finches and White-crowned Sparrows congregated and dispersed, forcing us to keep track of moving targets. When it was all said and done, we’d leave the golf course with over one-thousand individual birds and thirty-eight species. American Wigeon and American Coots were the most abundant birds encountered.

The next stop would be Corn Creek Field Station. This oasis north of Las Vegas is one of Nevada’s most well-known and visited hotspots. Over the years, birders have documented over three-hundred species in this patch of a few acres. With running water, tall native trees like cottonwoods, mesquite groves, a small pond, and an old orchard, it appeals to birds moving in and out of an area otherwise comprised of desert. It’s a magnet for songbirds that don’t prefer desert.

It was late morning by the time we arrived, but bird activity was still noticeable. In cold weather, birds need to work harder to maintain their body temperatures. Around patches of leaf litter, we’d find sparrows scratching for hidden seeds. Western Bluebirds, solitaires and Phainopeplas moved between patches of fruiting mistletoe. In between glancing at White-throated Sparrows and robins, I noticed the attentiveness and curiosity of the other party members. One of the joys of birding – and there are many – is seeing the effortless ability for birds to bring us into the moment and keep us there. The point of the day may have been scientific at heart, but it’s difficult to not be sucked into marveling over the fine patterning of a sparrow, the blues of a bluebird, or stateliness of a robin.

Sharing the moments of awe with me was Charlie Stowers. Charlie is a freshman at a college in Colorado, but he was born and raised in Las Vegas, where he found an early passion in art and birding. Charlie is an active member within our chapter, giving us quality time during breaks in college. During his winter break, he would help census birds for four of the six local bird counts.

Charlie is one of our youngest members. For so long, birding has been seen as something that doesn’t attract youth or young adults. Charlie and a growing number of chapter members contradict this notion. During moments of quiet, I had the opportunity to ask him to share some thoughts on birding around Las Vegas, what the birding community in Las Vegas is like, and what he would like to see more of in the future.

Charlie has personal reasons for spending his time with the Audubon chapter. Before he joined his first birding events late last year, he was already enjoying birds. “My interest in birds before I became part of Red Rock Audubon was a huge part of my personality, and even before I became a birder, some of my most treasured memories of my life from the ages of five to sixteen include birds in some shape or form. My love of birds and desire to see more of them was powerful but didn’t really have a direction.” Charlie goes on to say that it was the culture of the chapter that made a big impression on him. “The first thing that struck me when I connected with Red Rock Audubon was how inclusive everything felt and how much everyone I talked to was eager to share”, he said. “Another component of Red Rock Audubon is that the organization is exactly what you make of it. Some people join for an opportunity to meet others and hang out, some join to absorb all the local knowledge accumulated over the many years of the chapter’s existence, and still others join as a supplement to a career or education in the natural sciences”, he continued.

When Charlie speaks, you can feel the gratitude in his words. There is a playfulness and lightheartedness in his communication, along with perspectives and wisdom that belies his age. Currently in his first year of college, he reflected on how the chapter influenced his current life trajectory. “Red Rock Audubon helped to point me in the right direction, literally and figuratively letting me know where to go to achieve my goals of being a great birder and also pursuing a career in zoology.”

Charlie’s decision to study birds is new. It was only a few months ago that he was set on studying equine practices in Colorado State’s agricultural department. To no one’s surprise here, Charlie has recently chosen to focus on birds. His interest in birds has turned into a passion of deep curiosity and interest. Woven into his fascination in birds is his love for their habitats, and the communities of people that share these interests. He attributes Red Rock Audubon’s welcoming and supporting cast of characters as part of this journey. 

When I asked him about what he would say to younger people looking for community or an interest in birds, he said “to anyone looking for that, I couldn’t recommend Red Rock Audubon enough. It’s easy to think of a local Audubon society as being solely about birding, but in my experience, depending on which direction you choose to go, birding is often more of a medium for genuine connection than the end-all-be-all activity of the group. Friends that I’ve made through the society have become friends whose houses I drop in on from time to time, friends who carpool and exchange gifts with each other and connect on a much deeper level than just the pursuit of birds. The group offered me so much without judgement or hesitation, and I’m positive they can do the same for those who give them a chance.”

The usual early afternoon lull in bird activity never quite arrived at Corn Creek station. In this cold weather, birds continued to forage for food and visit the pond for water. Having adequately turned over many stones for uncounted birds, the group broke up into small parties to continue counting in other parts of the circle. John, our party leader, gave us clear directions as we said goodbyes to members of the group. Enthusiasm remained high still as we set off. Some groups were tasked with looking for Le Conte’s Thrashers and Sagebrush Sparrows in the saltbush flats nearby, while others like myself and Charlie scoured the Joshua Tree woodlands of lower Kyle Canyon for Cactus Wrens and shrikes. 

In the winter, the cold arrives in tandem with late afternoon. To save energy, well-fed birds may not use the last hours of daylight to forage. There comes a point where the energy lost in foraging is higher than the energy gained on a cold day. For us still counting at the end of the day, we could sense that the encroachment of low temperatures had influenced the birds to tuck away for the night. The same stillness that we started the day with had abruptly reinstituted command over the yuccas and creosote landscape. With that, we would make our way back into Las Vegas. Later, I thought about legacy as a concept and as an element of an organization. I thought about what it must have been like on some of the first Christmas Bird Counts and if anyone in the early 1900’s could have even imagined the scale of counts being conducted over one-hundred twenty-years into the future to current day. 

Surely the challenges that faced people and birds have changed drastically in the span of the counts. In the world of wildlife conservation, it is important to think about the long game. As long as there is a legacy of people cultivating the incoming stewards of all forms of nature like the Charlie Stowers of the world, there is no shortage of reasons to be counting birds for sake of science, for the sake of birds or for the sake of friendship.