Birds of a feather, move further north together
Citizen scientists help Audubon track bird species during annual count
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.
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.