As snow drifted down, John Bullock looked through his spotting scope and zeroed in on a red-tailed hawk, perched in a tree on the Billings Ranch property in north Ashland Wednesday.

As snow drifted down, John Bullock looked through his spotting scope and zeroed in on a red-tailed hawk, perched in a tree on the Billings Ranch property in north Ashland Wednesday.

"Look at this," he said to a half-dozen fellow birders gathered on the ridge overlooking the ranch. "Come check this out."

The other volunteers from the Rogue Valley chapter of the Audubon Society and professionals from the Klamath Bird Observatory lined up to take a look through the scope, which magnified the bird down to the feather.

"You need to confirm with other people or a picture," volunteer birder Marshall Malden explained. "In this, as in many things, people think they see the moon and they actually don't."

But Bullock did indeed have a red-tailed hawk in his sights, the others confirmed.

It was the first red-tailed hawk of the day for the group, one of nine participating in the Ashland Christmas Bird Count, resumed this year after a 70-year hiatus.

"We thought it'd be kind of a kick to start it up again, after so long," Bullock said.

Volunteers counted every bird they came across within a 15-mile circle encompassing the city and surrounding countryside. Bullock and his co-organizer, Harry Fuller, set the circle's midpoint at Emigrant Lake. The circle stretched from Billings Ranch at the northern part of town along Bear Creek to Mount Ashland, encompassing pieces of the Siskiyous and Cascades.

During an hour observing the Billings Ranch pond, volunteer Chuck Gates, who traveled from Prineville to participate in the count, spotted a semi-rare Eurasian wigeon, a chestnut-colored duck.

"We don't see them every year," said John Alexander, executive director of the bird observatory, who led one of the Ashland groups. "They're called vagrants, because they travel."

After spotting the Eurasian wigeon, Gates and other volunteers recorded 35 American wigeons, 15 ring-necked ducks, 11 American coots, nine red-winged blackbirds, nine lesser scaups, three common mergansers, two buffleheads and one mallard in the Billings Ranch pond.

"We use the scopes so we don't scare the ducks," Bullock said.

Later, the birders explored the ranch property, with the permission of the Billings family.

Other volunteers spent Wednesday walking on snowshoes to Pilot Rock and hiking up Dead Indian Memorial Road, looking for birds.

The snowy weather likely didn't affect the count drastically, Alexander said.

"We do the count rain or shine," he said. "This weather's actually not too bad. There are breaks in the snow."

The birders can count any species they spot three days before or after the count, to try to ensure that no bird is left out, Bullock said.

Complete results from the count will be released next week.

Primarily, the volunteers recorded birds that are native to Ashland and those that are native to Canada but winter here.

"We're counting birds that are Canadian breeds, that breed in the boreal forests," Alexander said. "There's a lot of concern about the health of the boreal forests because of climate change. We can evaluate the well-being of the boreal forests through bird counts here."

Organizers will submit the data from the count to national and international birding groups, including the Avian Knowledge Network, so it can be used for environmental assessments, Alexander said.

"Using bird data, you can really track the health of our natural resources, which is the underpinning of our whole economy," he said.

Christmas Bird Counts are being conducted all over North America this month, Alexander said.

"We're able to tell the state of the natural resources in Oregon and North America through these counts," he said. "They really are like a canary in a coal mine. They tell us if we're doing OK."

The data also will inform the 2011 U.S. State of the Birds report, Alexander said. The annual report, established in 2009, is a collaborative effort between federal and state wildlife agencies, and scientific and conservation organizations.

Many Ashland residents participate in Medford's annual Christmas Bird Count, which began in 1953 and was held on Dec. 18.

The local birders also will compare this year's Ashland data with the results from the last Ashland Christmas Bird Count — in 1940.

"The Christmas Bird Count is one of the oldest ecological monitoring programs in the world," Alexander said. "Sometimes we don't realize the importance of the count's results until 100 years later."

Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-708-1158 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.