Birds of a feather, move fur­ther north to­gether

Cit­i­zen sci­en­tists help Audubon track bird species dur­ing an­nual count

The Taos News - - GREAT OUTDOORS - By Kathy DeLu­cas

A ca­nary in the coal mine— that’s what this year’s 119th an­nual Christ­mas Bird Count might lit­er­ally be—a har­bin­ger in­di­cat­ing a dis­turb­ing trend.

The an­nual bird count started in 1900, ini­ti­ated by the then-fledg­ling Audubon So­ci­ety, as an al­ter­na­tive to killing birds dur­ing a cus­tom­ary com­pe­ti­tion that mostly men con­ducted ev­ery Christ­mas Day to see how many feath­ered crea­tures they could kill.

“It was im­por­tant be­cause it showed peo­ple they could en­joy birds with­out con­sum­ing them,” said Tom Jervis, pres­i­dent of the lo­cal San­gre de Cristo Audubon chap­ter. “It was prob­a­bly one of the first cit­i­zen sci­ence projects in the coun­try.”

With 119 years of data recorded, the an­nual count is a valu­able tool.

“You can see where the birds are, where they usu­ally aren’t. You can see im­me­di­ately what changes are go­ing on year to year and what trends are de­vel­op­ing,” Jervis said.

“And now we can go out and see what the ef­fects are, in the last 20 years, that birds are win­ter­ing far­ther north, largely be­cause of global warm­ing,” said Jervis. “It’s re­ally an im­por­tant record, and it’s not just a record in one place, but all across the coun­try.”

Jervis says there is no deny­ing cli­mate change. Bird pop­u­la­tions are mov­ing due to changes in habi­tat.

“There are no Repub­li­can birds, no Demo­cratic birds. If they’re chang­ing their habits, it’s real. Un­for­tu­nately, one of the things the count shows us is that birds are de­clin­ing, as­ton­ish­ingly and fright­en­ingly rapidly,” Jervis said. “This is one of the ways we know that cli­mate change is re­ally hap­pen­ing. It’s not fake news.”

The count has been for­mal­ized through­out the pro­gram’s his­tory. The for­mal­iza­tion in­cludes spe­cific rules and guide­lines to fol­low per­form­ing a count in an es­tab­lished cir­cle based on a point on a map. Num­bers of birds and species is com­piled lo­cally, areaw­ide, and statewide and then sent to the Cor­nell Univer­sity Lab of Or­nithol­ogy. Now from Dec. 14 through Jan. 5 each year, thou­sands of vol­un­teers across Amer­ica take part in the ef­fort. New Mex­ico has nearly 40 es­tab­lished count cir­cles, in­clud­ing Taos, Questa and An­gel Fire ar­eas.

On the south end of Taos, the Orilla Verde Christ­mas bird count, this year oc­curred Dec. 18. The cen­ter of the bird count cir­cle is nearly 5 miles west of Ran­chos de Taos. Five groups of about 50 vol­un­teers fanned out to cover an area that in­cludes Carson, Pi­lar, Talpa, Fred Baca Park, the Río Pue­blo and Orilla Verde along the Río Grande.

Steve Knox, co­or­di­na­tor for this area, said the des­ig­nated cir­cle has ex­isted for 15 years. The teams start a lit­tle af­ter sunup and count all day as bird­ers com­pile species and num­bers.

In 2017 bird­ers recorded 3,908 birds and 63 species. Pre­lim­i­nary re­sults for 2018 recorded more than 2,500 birds and 57 species, but num­bers needed to be nor­mal­ized with num­ber of vol­un­teer hours. Two small owls ruled the roost as the most un­usual sight­ing, in­clud­ing the north­ern pygmy owl and the north­ern saw-whet owl.

Knox said one of the ob­jec­tives is to get peo­ple in­volved and ac­tive in bird­ing be­cause birds are so re­flec­tive of the en­vi­ron­ment and the changes.

“It’s one of the most com­pre­hen­sive things that show the birds and the chang­ing cli­mate,” Knox says, “and birds are very sen­si­tive to that and very mo­bile. When we com­pare the re­sults with his­toric records, we can see that with the loss of habi­tat and drought, that has re­duced the num­ber of species and the num­ber of in­di­vid­u­als,” Knox said.

Knox’s per­sonal fa­vorite bird is the Amer­i­can dip­per with its char­ac­ter­is­tic deep knee bends while for­ag­ing for grubs.

“It’s one of the birds that’s been de­clin­ing in this area, so it’s nice to see. It shows the health of the streambed and eats the grubs. All the pol­lu­tants that de­crease the grubs and in­ver­te­brates that live in river, af­fect it (the bird) very strongly.”

“To me birds are a very in­ter­est­ing species as a whole be­cause they have all these so­ci­etal and so­cial in­ter­ac­tions and dif­fer­ent ways to raise their kid­dos. They pre­date us as de­scen­dants of the di­nosaurs,” Knox said. “I think we have a closer look of what is hap­pen­ing to the whole ecosys­tem and the whole bunch of us an­i­mals that live on this planet.”

In­for­ma­tion gath­ered by bird­ers is im­por­tant to other or­ga­ni­za­tions, such as Taos Land Trust, which use the col­lected data to help guide con­ser­va­tion ac­tion.

“The Fred Baca Park and the newly cre­ated Río Fer­nando Park wet­land, that whole area is a bird­ing hot spot, ac­cord­ing to eBird.org,”

Taos Land Trust As­so­ciate Di­rec­tor Ju­niper Man­ley said, with 179 species re­ported in that tiny lo­cale.

“As we look at land­scape-scale con­ser­va­tion, if we look down­stream from us, we see all that wet­land con­nec­tiv­ity, and we would love to see more of it un­der ease­ments so we can con­nect that cor­ri­dor,” she said.

“You can see the beaver dams and we’re do­ing restora­tion work along the wet­lands to im­prove the habi­tat and keep as much wild­ness for the bird pop­u­la­tion as pos­si­ble,” Man­ley said.

Kathy DeLu­cas

From left: Derrick Olinger, wildlife tech­ni­cian on the Carson Na­tional For­est, Ryan Besser with the Bu­reau of Land Man­age­ment and Jay Gatlin, wildlife bi­ol­o­gist for the Carson Na­tional For­est, count dark-eyed jun­cos in the shrub­bery near the Talpa Reser­voir dur­ing this year’s Christ­mas Bird Count.

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