Bird count continues through pandemic for the sake of birds

A flock of American goldfinches forage for seeds at the Yellowtail Wildlife Habitat Management Area. The birds are among those commonly seen by citizens who volunteer every year to track bird populations. (Photo by Mark Davis, Powell Tribune)

POWELL — Despite sturdy branches and stems intruding on the double-track trail and scraping the side of Rob Koelling’s new pickup truck, he kept pressing forward through areas 8 and 9 in the Yellowtail Wildlife Habitat Management Area.

John Campbell winced with every excruciatingly long screech chipping away long tracks of clear coat. But Koelling didn’t give it a second thought. He bought the truck to take him to birding habitat and has already had his share of repairs.

There’s a price to pay for the great photographs Koelling takes of our feathered friends. Yet, there’s even a greater price to pay by refusing to follow the dream he has of documenting his favorite subjects.

“I haven’t even looked,” Koelling said of his new scratches. “It’s going to get banged up a little bit.”

He’s been hot on the trail of all birds since his youngest child graduated and sports were no longer of great concern — about 14 years ago, he figures. Meanwhile, Campbell has been chasing birds most of his life. He was there 30 years ago when the first National Audubon Society Kane Christmas Bird Count was held at Yellowtail.

Through the entire three decades, Campbell has done his count in Area 9. His knowledge of the habitat and the birds who make it their home is almost spooky. As the two traveled down the dirt roads, some with a light covering of snow and all of them bumpy, Campbell proclaimed, “this is a good area for robins.”

Within a minute or two the first robin of the day flitted from branch to branch as the truck approached, eventually joining a small flock of a few dozen on the bare branches of a nearby tree. Campbell demonstrated his seemingly magical abilities again with shrike and goldfinch — each proving to be exactly where he knew they’d be based on his years of experience. There’s joy in recognizing the patterns, Campbell said.

“The [Christmas bird] count is a long term picture of the status of birds,” he said. “It’s one of the most important citizen science data we collect in the country.”

In all, the dynamic duo saw 22 species of birds in six hours of cruising their section of the 19,214-acre habitat. While it’s not a competition, Campbell seemed jealous that Eric Atkinson, assistant professor of biology at Northwest College, saw 31 species. (Both Koelling and Campbell are former
professors at the college.) He was particularly jealous that Atkinson had seen Lapland longspurs and redpolls in his area.

This is the Audubon Society’s 122nd year of holding the event. For the past two holiday seasons the Kane count has been altered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I miss the camaraderie of meeting after the count,” Campbell said.

Eighteen participants covered the entire habitat. Christy Fleming, chief of interpretation at Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, has run the count for the past few years and keeps the current stats. The volunteers combined covered 5.8 miles by foot, drove 183.3 miles, saw 66 species of birds and counted 9,099 total birds Saturday. The Lapland longspur was the rarest bird seen and California quail were new to the list — possibly escapees from a local bird farm.

The group is always looking for new volunteers to join the count, Fleming said. Those interested can call her at 307-548-5406.

Campbell will be back at Yellowtail in January for the Bureau of Land Management’s annual Eagle Count. And Koelling will continue to chase birds in the Big Horn Basin on a daily basis, hoping to capture their beauty in his lens.

A recent show featuring Koelling’s images raised about $2,700 for Susan Ahalt’s Ironside Bird Rescue, Inc., in Cody. It’s unclear how many nicks, dings and scratches his new truck suffered for the collection, but it is clear they won’t be the last.