The annual Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count is on Wednesday, Dec. 22, and I have been preparing for this event by scouting my assigned territory – Granite Basin Recreation Area. This is a very large area geographically to cover in one day, but I will focus most of my time and energy in a few specific spots that have historically yielded some really good bird sightings.
On two previous Christmas bird counts, I have seen a varied thrush in Granite Basin on the day of the count. This is a species that is more likely to be found in a temperate rain forest. One year I found a male black-throated blue warbler on the day of the count. This guy should have been basking in the sun in its normal winter habitat of the West Indies, and yet I discovered it in Granite Basin in December! To me, this is the lure of bird-watching – one never knows what he might see when he goes birding.
My assigned area begins at the intersection of Iron Springs and Granite Basin Road, just a few miles west of town. Traveling north on Granite Basin Road from Iron Springs to the saddle is predominantly a pinion/juniper habitat. This is a good place to see western scrub-jays, phainopepla, dark-eyed junco, white-crowned sparrow, bushtits, spotted towhees and a variety of other chaparral loving species. If I am lucky, I will either see or hear crissal thrashers in this area.
After crossing over the saddle, the road drops down into the basin and the habitat changes from pinion-juniper to ponderosa pine. The sudden change in vegetation results in a whole different variety of birds, such as white-breasted and pygmy nuthatches, mountain chickadee, hairy and acorn woodpeckers and Steller’s jay, to name a few.
The Wekuvde day-use area is a really good birding destination. There is ample parking, clean restroom facilities, and the birding around the picnic area is usually very productive. This past week I saw flocks of red crossbills in this area, along with Cassin’s finches, pine siskin and both red-naped and Williamson sapsucker – all within easy walking distance of the parking lot.
If you stay on the main road, you will eventually arrive at Granite Basin “Lake,” which by most standards is not much more than a pond. It has been my experience that in the dead of winter, about 80 percent of the lake is iced over, leaving only 20 percent open water, resulting in very few water birds being present. However, because of our mild weather, the surface area of the whole lake is ice-free this year. A variety of water birds were present including great blue heron, coot, mallards, ring-necked duck, gadwall, bufflehead, redhead and American wigeon.
In addition to parking at the Wekuvde Day-Use Area, other worthy stopping points are the boat launch and the Playa parking lots. There are well-maintained trails that extend both upstream and downstream from the lake. You can’t go wrong taking either trail, whether you are looking for birds or just want to take a nice hike.
If the weather holds for the next week, I am very encouraged that I will have a really productive day on the day of the Christmas bird count. I would like to see at least 50 different species in my assigned area on the day of the count. Weather can play a significant role, impacting both the presence and the activity level of birds in the area.