Steamboat’s scarce valley snow rings dinner bell for raptors | SteamboatToday.com

Steamboat’s scarce valley snow rings dinner bell for raptors

Douglas Wipper captured an image of a Clark's nutcracker at a bird feeder during the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, a rarity because the bird spends most of its life above 11,000 feet.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Snowshoe enthusiasts and Nordic skiers aren't the only ones bemoaning the lack of snow on  Steamboat's valley floor this December; the scarcity of the white stuff made the annual Audubon Christmas Bird count more challenging.

Steamboat Springs birder and Routt County organizer Tresa Moulton said in a typical winter, bird count participants know they can find their feathered friends close to neighborhood bird feeders but not so much this year.

"This year's strange weather is a plus for the birds, because there is plenty of food around, not covered by snow," Moulton said. "They are not congregating at feeders as much as they usually do at this time of year. Nevertheless, our 40 participants managed to find an above average number of species (46) and an average number of individual birds (2,484)."

The 459 North America crows spied Sunday, many of them foraging for food in open meadows, ranked them at the top of the most common bird sightings.

There were also some relatively rare birds hanging around the valley when the annual count took place. Bird watchers confirmed a single northern shrike, three brown creepers, a prairie falcon and a northern harrier.

Bird count compiler Tom Litteral said the biggest surprise for him came in the form of a Clark's nutcracker.

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"This bird is normally found at 11,000 feet and above,” Litteral said. “They are pinon pine specialists, and to have one coming to a feeder right in the middle of Old Town was remarkable.”

The lack of consistent snow coverage on the valley floor has created a pre-Christmas banquet for many species of birds, Litteral said, including the raptors with 14 red-tailed hawks tallied during the bird count.

"There's plenty of ground forage for them," Litteral said. "Mice and voles are still active. Usually, they would be in the layer between the ground and the (bottom) of the snowpack this time of year. The hawks are doing well, and ranchers will be happy about that."

Litteral, who drives a bus for Steamboat Springs Transit, said Monday he has added sightings of three more species since the official bird count, and one of them was spied while he was on the job.

"I was driving the bus last night at the gondola transit center when I saw a snipe flying in front of my bus, as I was making our rounds," he said.

The long-billed snipes are typically seen along river banks and the edges of ponds – ski resorts are not their winter habitat.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1.