• Rainbow over Half Dome


    National Park California

Annual Christmas Bird Count at Yosemite

People using binoculars to scan trees in search of birds at the 2013 annual Christmas Bird Count
During the 2013 Christmas Bird Count, the teams of birders counted and identified 2,754 birds of 69 species in Yosemite.

Next Yosemite Christmas Bird Count: Dec. 14, 2014 (details below)

Tens of thousands of volunteers across the Americas join together annually during the Christmas Bird Count. The event provides a full day to celebrate birds. Since 1932, Yosemite's participation has contributed more than 95,000 observations to the conservation event.

What better way to start AND end the Yosemite Christmas Bird Count (CBC) than with the soft persistent hoots of a Northern Saw-whet Owl! Under a clear blue sky and a full moon, with chilly temperatures and a blanket of snow, a record number of birders convened in their respective locations in the park to share in the delights of bird watching. Yosemite’s CBC has become a treasured holiday tradition, a reunion with birding friends, and a way to play a small part in a big conservation picture. The CBC in Yosemite has been going strong since 1932, with the cumulative number of annual participants reaching 1,322! For many, the holiday season would not be complete without the CBC.

Lincoln Sparrow seen near Foresta during 2012 Christmas Bird Count

Northern pygmy-owl spotted near Foresta during the 2012 Christmas Bird Count

This year on December 15, 2013, 63 participants divided up into 9 groups, each one with the goal of counting as many species and individual birds as possible in their particular area. Each group had at least one designated leader, a birding expert, who was responsible for the accuracy of the data. All day, the groups searched their respective areas, covering a 15-mile radius circle, that included El Portal, Foresta, Yosemite Valley, and Chinquapin/Yosemite West. Just before dark, everyone convened in Yosemite Valley to warm up, eat good food, share their birding highlights, and tally results. This year, a total of 2,754 individual birds comprising 69 species were recorded! Since 1991, this is the second highest count for Yosemite’s CBC, just behind 70 species (2011).

Probably the biggest highlight was having 63 participants, far exceeding the previous high of 48 participants (2008)! In fact, the total number of participants was not far off from reaching the total number of species (69). With so many eyes and ears alert for birds, it’s not surprising there were some great birding moments and highlights, including 11 raptor species (of which 4 were owls), 2 Western Scrub-Jays above 5,000 ft. elevation, and 355 Golden-crowned Kinglets (including 242 in West Yosemite Valley alone)! The “birds of the day” included a Merlin north of Foresta, a Western Screech-Owl and a Myrtle’s Yellow-rumped Warbler (El Portal), 2 Williamson’s Sapsuckers (Chinquapin and Foresta), and 2 detections of a Northern Saw-whet Owl and a brilliant look at a Pileated Woodpecker (Yosemite Valley).

What a great start to the holiday season! See you at next year’s Yosemite Christmas Bird Count on Sunday, December 14, 2014.

Some of the historic highlights from Yosemite's Christmas Bird Count include:
  • A record 1,100 band-tailed pigeons counted in 1971
  • A record 560 mountain chickadees in 1972
  • A record 483 golden-crowned kinglets in 1953
  • Two rare hooded mergansers spotted in 1940
  • Great gray owls observed during five different annual bird counts
Pileated woodpecker spotted during the 2013 Christmas Bird Count

Pileated woodpecker spotted during the 2013 annual event.

The next Yosemite Christmas Bird Count is Dec. 14, 2014. To attend the full-day event, bring binoculars, a field guide, lunch, plenty of warm clothes and sturdy shoes. Plan to be outside all day, from around dawn to dusk. An annual compilation potluck dinner closes the day to allow participants to share Yosemite birding highlights. To participate, you must register in advance. Contact the Yosemite Christmas Bird Count Organizer, Sarah Stock, by email or by phone at 209/379-1435.

When bird-watching, experienced birders confidently identify birds by just a glimpse. (See illustrations of Yosemite's most common species.) Remember that a bird’s feathers change as an adult molts into its winter plumage. For many species, a male bird’s winter plumage is dull compared to his colorful plumage in the spring when he is interested in attracting a female with whom to mate. Also, note subtle nuances in a bird’s song or call—long trills or short chips. In the winter, birds rarely sing but make call notes to defend a territory, announce the presence of a predator, or to keep up with a mixed-species foraging flock.
Birder stands in field in winter
Yosemite has participated in the Christmas Bird Count since 1932.
Karyn O'Hearn

Did You Know?

Sierra Sweet Bay

In Wawona and downstream, the South Fork Merced River provides habitat for a rare plant, the Sierra sweet bay (Myrica hartwegii). This special status shrub is found in only five Sierra Nevada counties. In Yosemite, it occurs exclusively on sand bars and river banks along the South Fork Merced River downstream from Wawona and on Big Creek.