Steamboat Springs On International Migratory Bird Day a few years back, I was hosting a workshop about bird watching. As we got started, I asked the group, “How many of you are birders?” After an awkward moment of dead silence, not a hand was raised. OK, let’s try another approach. “How many of you feed birds in your backyard?” Half the room raised their hands enthusiastically. “How many of you own binoculars and a field guide?” All hands were up.
Nobody in the room was a “birder,” but everybody enjoyed watching birds and owned the “tools of the trade.” Why was everybody so afraid to call themselves a birder? It was as if declaring one’s interest would require some sort of expertise, special training or maybe even buying one of those silly-looking vests with all the pockets to hold “birder stuff.”
Was there that little interest in birds in the Yampa Valley? I thought not. In the winters since, cowboys and powder hounds alike have mused about bird behavior. More than 100 robins overwintering here? Columbian sharp-tailed grouse boozing on the berries of Steamboat II’s landscaped lawns? As Ski Town USA celebrates its Olympians, world-class ski area and the friendly folks who make this place a community, an entire subculture celebrates something else here, too — the Yampa Valley’s birds.
In his book “Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds,” Scott Weidensaul describes bird migration as “the one truly unifying natural phenomena of the world.” During the day and night, billions of birds travel from overwintering to breeding grounds. They are the original “global citizens.” Their flight, covering thousands of miles and crossing hemispheric boundaries, continues to puzzle scientists and inspire awe in casual observers when we remember to notice. Most migratory birds are “on the wing,” but some, such as our own dusky grouse, are on their feet, moving from one habitat to another. Late-season skiers often encounter grouse on their trek and are punished for the insensitivity of the interruption by the unique experience of the “grouse charge.”
In the city, commonly observed migrants such as the red-winged blackbirds and American robins remind us that spring is back. In the county’s vast agricultural lands, spring welcomes bluebirds, sandhill cranes and the unmistakable honk of the Canada goose. Nesting activity is under way. Bald eagles, great horned owls and red-tailed hawks prepare for the next generation.
Have birds piqued your interest? Celebrate International Migratory Bird Day on May 22 at Yampatika’s Environmental Learning Center. “The Power of Partnerships” is this year’s theme. The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Forest Service, the city of Steamboat Springs, Yampa Valley Birding Club and Yampatika offer a free event — from kids’ activities and bird walks to migration talks and workshops about pollinator gardening, there is something for everyone. Or join Yampatika and the Yampa Valley Birding Club for free bird walks Tuesdays on May 18 through June 29. To learn more, call Yampatika at 970-871-9151. And don’t worry; you don’t have to call yourself a “birder.”
Sonja Macys is executive director of Yampatika. She became interested in birds while living on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Upon returning from Mexico, she served as executive director of the Tucson Audubon Society and a management board member of The Sonoran Joint Venture.