This is my last opportunity to get out on the Refuge for a bird count in February. They had already had a count last week so Linda and I stayed home. Howard Browers, biologist at the refuge, wanted to go along but wanted to include his survey for waterbirds as well. This was a good opportunity for me to see what his ideas were for the counts and also see how one counts literally 1000.s of bird in a fairly short time span. We met at the Education Center at 0730 and headed out. It was a nice morning with temps in the mid 20’s, little wind and overcast skies. We had a good visit as we headed for the Perry gate and it didn’t take long before we were countin’ birds. Redwing blackbirds, ravens and ring billed gulls got us started. By the time we hit the turn in the D-line road we hit our first large group of waterbirds. Howard broke out the spotting scope and started calling out species and numbers. Swans, geese and a good variety of ducks kept me busy with the tally sheets and then my song birds would bring me back to the reality that I had to keep track of them as well. I was caught off guard when Howard started calling out bald eagle sightings and they didn’t come one at a time. There was one large group of mature balds on the ice totaling 14 birds, what a grand sight that was, bet they are eating a lot of ducks.
We continued working our way around the different Units and when we strayed the normal route for the songbird count I would get a break. Sometimes Howard would have me tally by bird counts and sometimes there were so many birds he would estimate the total and then give me species by percentages. It didn’t take long in our route before we had a bit of a weather change and a cold wind kept me in the truck while he braved the elements to get out with the scope. We had a wonderful day in the marsh and the birds were fairly cooperative except for the little brown jobs that flit from one patch of Phrag to another and never seem to hold still long enough to be identified before they pass clean out of sight. When we hit lunch time and still had not hit the half way point in our count, I knew we were in for a long day (sure wish I had brought a lunch, guess the diet coke would have to hold me for a while).
Around 2:00 we started seeing snow squalls working their way across the Promontory and Wasatch mountains and down into the basin floor. It wouldn’t be long before the snow would work its way across the refuge and change our count strategy. I learned quickly that any kind of bird is hard to identify in a white out, but Howard persevered and we made it through to the end. We hit about 14 species on the songbird/raptor count and Howard estimated somewhere in the neighborhood of 30-40,000 water birds. It was a real eye opener to watch Howard ID birds at 500 yards with the scope.
Our top sightings for the day were the tundra swans, 49 bald eagles, two smelly little skunks working the road banks for a bite, and a barn owl hunting the marsh for a mouse or two as we passed the electric gate and headed back to the Education Center. Nine volunteer hours, not a bad day for an old retired guy!
- Brian Ferguson
(Please note, this Survey was done by US FWS Biologist, Howard Browers, and Refuge Volunteer Brian Ferguson. Not all areas surveyed are open to the public - but many of these birds and species can be seen from our public Auto Tour Loop as well!)