“Look over here,” Emily called, as a small bird flew from the sidewalk into a bush. Squinting through fogged glasses and dripping-wet binoculars in the falling snow, we watched as the details of the bird slowly emerged: a plump sparrow, with gray head and back, reddish-brown wings and dark streaking on the breast. It was a fox sparrow — the first one ever recorded during the Grand Canyon Christmas Bird Count!

Eight inches of snow had fallen that morning, but many birds had been actively feeding through the storm. Fog filled the canyon, obscuring the views, but the fresh snow was beautiful. My team and several others had braved the winter weather to count hundreds of birds: juncos, chickadees, woodpeckers and finches. Later, we laughed as we warmed ourselves at an evening potluck dinner while comparing sightings and adventures with other teams.

After compiling the results of our count, we submitted them to the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count database. Going back more than 100 years, the Christmas count is the longest-running citizen science project in the world. Each winter, teams across the country and the world document the birds in their area. The results reveal long-term changes and shifts in birds’ ranges and abundance. This data can reveal bird populations that are struggling and lead to conservation action.

California condorOur snowy count in 2012 was the first Christmas bird count at Grand Canyon in nearly 30 years. We counted the endangered California condor (at right) for the first time and found high numbers of several types of finches. Also recorded for the first time on a Grand Canyon Christmas count, an American three-toed woodpecker, a species adapted to fire, was found in a recently burned patch of forest.

In 2013, the weather on count day was sunny and beautiful, and we set a new record for total number of species seen. Walking along the canyon rim, watching ravens circle below, it was hard to believe how different the weather had been the year before. Among the 55 species we observed were the threatened Mexican spotted owl and species such as the black-throated sparrow, which only occasionally winters at Grand Canyon. Although the nomadic finches that had been common the previous year were virtually absent, we established new high counts for many other species.  

These large numbers of birds are consistent with Grand Canyon National Park’s recent designation as a globally important bird area by the National Audubon Society. The immense canyon contains a spectacular diversity of terrain and vegetation types, which in turn provides important habitat for an exceptional diversity of birds. More than 350 species of birds have been seen in the region, including significant breeding populations of vulnerable birds like the pinyon jay, and threatened and endangered species like the spotted owl and California condor.

HawkDespite this remarkable diversity, few people visit Grand Canyon with birds in mind, which makes studies such as the Christmas bird count even more important. Each year’s count will contribute more data to our understanding of the amazing birdlife of Grand Canyon, while helping us understand changes as they happen.

What will we find on this year’s Christmas bird count? Will the finches return? Will we find more high numbers or rare species? Join us to find out!

Grand Canyon Christmas Bird Count

  • When: Dec. 14, 2014
  • Where: Grand Canyon, Arizona
  • To participate: Contact Brian Gatlin at (928) 638-7968 or brian_gatlin@nps.gov by Dec. 7, 2014, for details. The bird count is funded through the Grand Canyon Association, the official nonprofit partner of the Grand Canyon. For more information about this and future bird counts, see the GCA website.
  • Bring: Binoculars and a field guide, food, water, layers of warm clothing, adequate footwear and shoe traction devices for walking in the snow, and a sense of curiosity and adventure.
  • Plan: To spend the day out in the weather, which may be pleasant and sunny, or may be snowy and windy and cold.
To learn more about Christmas bird counts, and to find one near you, visit the Audubon Society’s website.
Brian Gatlin is park ranger for Grand Canyon National Park.

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Inset photos: Chad Olson/National Park Service (condor); Erin Whittaker/National Park Service (hawk)