For the birds: Grand Junction boy helps tally annual bird count |

For the birds: Grand Junction boy helps tally annual bird count

Sharon Sullivan
During the 2010 Christmas Bird Count Ryan Chamberlain spotted a Ruby-crowned Kinglet in a juniper tree. As he approached to identify the bird it deposited a little present on his sunglasses!
Jackson Trappett |

92 species, 17,167 birds counted

Historically Grand Junction has been in the top 10 sites in the nation where Western Screech-Owls are found — this year 52 were counted during Grand Junction’s 61st Christmas Bird Count.

“There’s a certain pride associated with being able to count Western Screech-Owls,” Grand Valley Audubon Society bird count compiler Ken Schreiner said.

By Tuesday, Schreiner had tallied all the birds and various species that were spotted during two bird counts that took place locally — one in Grand Junction, Dec. 20, and another on the Grand Mesa on New Year’s Day.

Nationally, Audubon Christmas Bird Counts take place anytime between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. It is the longest running citizen science survey in the world. According to Audubon, the count provides critical data on population trends.

Nothing too surprising appeared this year, Schreiner said. Sometimes there will be one or two birds hanging around the valley that would have normally flown further south by now, such as the single dusky grouse that was seen on the Colorado National Monument.

Schreiner speculated that the bird got stuck in the valley after December’s major snow storm.

Twenty-seven bald eagles, one great egret and 20 great blue herons were spotted in one of the areas. In another location, 77 red-tailed hawks, 14 great horned owls, and one hairy woodpecker were observed. Two canyon wrens, 40 mountain bluebirds and 4,248 European starlings were counted in another area.

Those are just a small sampling of the species noted in Grand Junction’s most recent bird count. For more information or to see the full results, visit

— Sharon Sullivan, Free Press Staff Writer

It’s not every kid who will get up before dawn on a below-freezing morning to count birds.

But for the past five years, 13-year old Ryan Chamberlain has joined other citizen scientists — mostly adults — who participate in the Grand Junction Christmas Bird Count every year.

“We’re counting every bird in a particular area every year to determine its population,” Ryan said. “It’s like a detective game.”

During the 1800s, many North Americans participated in a Christmas-tradition outing to see who could kill the most birds, regardless of whether they’d be used, or if the birds were rare or beautiful.

Then, in December of 1900 the United States ornithologist Frank Chapman, founder of “Bird-Lore” magazine, proposed counting birds instead of killing them. Since that year, bird counts have increased steadily.

In the winter of 2012-2013 (the 114th national count), 71,531 people participated in the Christmas Bird Count in 2,369 locations, mostly in North America.

Grand Junction started participating in the count in 1953, and has done so every year since.

On Sunday, Dec. 20, bird counters spread out over 16 different Grand Valley areas — each group led by an experienced birder, and each site covering a 15-mile circumference. Birds are counted and species noted at each site, and then tallied with results sent to the National Audubon Society. Results are published in “American Bird” magazine.

Ryan’s group started at 7 a.m. in southeast Fruita where the temperature was one below zero.

“It was slow at first — it usually is — and then about 9-10 (a.m.) you start to see a lot of birds coming out.”

The birds were smart, “it was a very cold morning,” said Ryan’s grandmother Jan Burch, an avid birder, who along with her husband Jim have attended Bird Counts for the past 30 years wherever they’ve lived — including Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Colorado.

The early risers who braved the freezing temperature were rewarded with sightings of 92 separate species including wood ducks, several kestrels (nicknamed the sparrow hawk), a goshawk, a sharp-shinned hawk, bald eagles and a fat bright yellow meadowlark “all puffed up on a stump trying to get warm in the sunshine,” Burch said.

“We saw a family of eagles — young juveniles, all flying together.”

The goal is to keep the count scientific, including learning the birds’ scientific names.

The data gathered nationwide reveals when and if changes occur in the bird populations. It’s a scientific census that helps protect bird populations, Burch said.

“This is how we know the eagles are coming back,” she said. “They used to be on the endangered species list.”

Ryan noted that the eagles have made a come-back since the banning of DDT, a toxic pesticide that caused the egg shells of eagles to be soft (which would then break when sat upon by the mother).

On the other hand, local bird counts have shown a dramatic decrease in the number of sage grouse due to habitat destruction. Power lines provide perches for hawks that prey on species in areas that were once safe.

“Another threat are the cell phone towers that give hawks a perch to observe endangered species,” Ryan added.

“A perch is a perk for a hawk,” his grandmother said.

In some cases, feral cats are the problem, Ryan noted.

“Last year I saw a lot of feral cats and a lot less birds,” he said.

The son of Sue and Barry Chamberlain, Ryan acquired an appreciation for birds from his grandparents.

“Even when he was very young he’d talk about the details,” Burch said. “He’d notice the birds, mention its names.

“It gives you recreation — something you can do wherever you go.”

Ryan has traveled to Costa Rica where he spotted the “most resplendent, most exotic birds,” such as the Quetzal, a 6-inch tall bird with a green iridescent color, and super long tail, as well as a Bird of Paradise.

He said his favorite bird is the Western Tanager — the males sport bright yellow feathers, have a red head and black wings with a white marking.

“They’re beautiful,” Ryan said. “It reminds me of a certain place on the Mesa and the first time I ever saw one. They’re so out of the ordinary. They always remind me of a place I love.”

In every case the females are more drab in appearance so that they can guard the nest undetected,” Burch said.

Someday, Ryan also plans to fly above the earth. He said he intends to be a pilot for St. Mary’s Care Flight where his dad is a flight nurse.

It’s easy to become a bird-watcher, Ryan said.

For me, I just look around. I get my binoculars and a field guide and start comparing what I see,” he said. “It’s nice to have binoculars, but it’s not necessary.”

Would-be birders can also attend an Audubon meeting, or go on a field trip. For a schedule of meetings or for more information, visit

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