Christmas Bird Count lets citizen scientists help track species

By Cindy Brown For Taos News
Posted 12/12/19

This will be the 120th year for the annual Christmas Bird Count. It began in 1900 as an alternative to a traditional Christmas hunt. The purpose of the count is for citizen scientists to provide data to the National Audubon Society that helps build a comprehensive picture of bird life and patterns in the Americas and also to provide an opportunity for people to become involved in bird watching, even if they are just beginning birders.

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Christmas Bird Count lets citizen scientists help track species

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This will be the 120th year for the annual Christmas Bird Count. It began in 1900 as an alternative to a traditional Christmas hunt. The purpose of the count is for citizen scientists to provide data to the National Audubon Society that helps build a comprehensive picture of bird life and patterns in the Americas and also to provide an opportunity for people to become involved in bird watching, even if they are just beginning birders.

Robert Templeton compiles the results of the Christmas Bird Count in Dixon, now in its 23rd year. When asked about the importance of this bird count and understanding trends for birds, Templeton says, "As humans we depend on the health of our habitat just like birds do. We think we are working to save the birds or the bears, but it is all one web; we are all dependent on the same environment to live. We create a false division between humans and animals, but that is not how evolution works. There is no special status for humans."

The Taos News asked Templeton a few questions about the Christmas Bird Count, coming up between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5 in more that 2,600 locations throughout North America, Mexico and Latin America and more than 30 sites in New Mexico.

How did the Christmas Bird Count get started?

Before 1900, there was a tradition in the United States brought from Britain of hunting birds on Christmas Day. There were so many birds at that time that many people could not imagine that humans might actually eliminate a species.

There were a few scientists and bird observers who were concerned with what they perceived to be declining bird populations. An early ornithologist with the Audubon Society (Frank M. Chapman) proposed a Christmas Bird Census to count birds rather than shoot them. The first count took place on Christmas Day in 1900. Twenty-five bird counts were held in locations from Ontario, Canada, to California.

Before this time, in order to claim an identification of a bird, it would have to be killed and examined. With the wider availability of binoculars and the original Peterson bird guide that used arrows to point to specific bird features, the way was opened to our current way of watching birds today.

What is happening in New Mexico?

In New Mexico, there are roughly 30 count sites. Groups of anywhere between 10 and 100 people cover a circle that is 15 miles in diameter. Ideally, all of that is covered but that is usually not possible, so the groups try to cover all the different types of habitat.

In Dixon, that means the areas near the Río Grande and the Río Embudo, as well the uplands with the piñon and juniper and an area of ponderosa pine, along with the villages and agricultural areas. Each habitat has its own species although there is some overlap. When I've been lucky enough to see a black phoebe, for example, it is down by the river not in the higher piñon and juniper areas.

How long have you been involved? How does the count work?

The Dixon count started in 1997. I first got involved in 1999 and since 2002, I have been the compiler of the observations made in Dixon.

Each count is divided into groups called "parties." Ideally, each group has three to five people, although in larger communities, the groups may have more people. In each group, there is one person who can identify all the species that might be seen or at least the vast majority. My first task is to make sure that I will have enough experts to lead about four groups in Dixon. Also in the group, there are usually some people with birding experience and often absolute beginners, too.

That's how I got started. I attended a Christmas Bird Count in Española. I had been birding about two weeks at that time. The count is a great opportunity for beginners to come out and learn bird identification from experts and see how they use bird sightings, guides and range maps to come up with good identifications.

One common problem is when someone from another area of the country joins the count here. They may expect to see the birds they normally see in their area and misidentify a bird. However, now there is such a huge data base of information that incorrect data just falls out if it is not repeated.

Another safeguard is that if a bird that has been recorded on less than 10 percent of the counts in your area is sighted, a rare bird report must be filled out that includes what field guide was used, etc. A regional editor will review the report and decide whether or not the bird will be included in the count. This process helps keep the data clean.

Have you seen trends in the bird counts over the years?

It is very difficult to draw large conclusions from Dixon or Orilla Verde counts. Results do vary from year to year. One thing that is clear is that there has been a precipitous drop in songbirds; while the raptor population seems to be doing generally all right. It feels quieter out there, in general and that fits with the overall data.

There has been an uptick in the number of some duck species. It may have to do with waterfowl migration patterns. In the past, there was a greater pressure to move south looking for open water that was not frozen. Under warming conditions, there is less pressure to move south -- but this is just one of many possible different explanations.

A little over a decade ago, the curve-billed thrasher was rarely seen in Santa Fe -- now it is a common bird there with its dramatic call and song. This thrasher has been moving north; it was never recorded here until 2016 and last year we spotted four.

The white-winged dove also appears to be moving north. In 1975, there were just a few in Las Cruces and none in Santa Fe. It wasn't until 1998 that the dove appeared in Santa Fe and some years since there have been more than 100. In 2010, it appeared in Dixon and by 2018 there were more than 50 counted. I appears the bird is wintering farther north. It could be the result of climate warming and a change to a food source.

We know warming is happening and that less precipitation is predicted. Changes in bird patterns can lag behind climate change as bird patterns are also driven by other factors.

What people can learn from birding?

We can learn patience. The birds are not there to perform for you. A lot of times we have to wait to see them. The slower the birder, the more chance you have to see birds. Slowing down and keeping eyes open for movement and ears open for sound lead to more bird sightings.

Bird watching is unique to nature observation in that it is so musical. If you are birding by yourself, you hear the birds and begin to be able to identify the birds and track their patterns through the soundscape.

You get to know the usual calls and then may notice a species you've never seen before or hear a new call or song. Aurally, it is rich even in urban areas. We have taken so much of the bird habitat [that] it is common to hear them in developed areas.

I'm not sure there is anything more important about the count than the opportunity to reconnect with nature. We are reconnecting with our cousins the birds and other wild animals that are still hunter and gatherers -- a stage we passed through in evolution.

It is something that is always with me, the awareness of relating to these cousins that are not domesticated. It is really special; an opportunity to be with something primeval. When you go birding you are out there before the sun rises and after the sun sets; not something many of us do too often.

Our future lies with nature. We have an endless stream of entertainment with our phones and TVs, but our future as humans depends on what happens in nature and observing birds is a great way to connect. The amount of bird life available in everyone's yard is quite extraordinary.

What is the secret to spotting rare birds?

If you don't go out there, you won't see them. The more time you devote to it, the more birds you see.

How can people get involved this year?

The Orilla Verde Christmas Bird Count is scheduled for Saturday (Dec. 14). It will cover Pilar Village, the Río Grande to the Taos Junction Bridge, north to Carson, west to Talpa and areas along the Río Fernando de Taos and the Río Pueblo de Taos. RSVP to steve84911@gmail.com.

In Dixon, the Christmas Bird Count will be held on Saturday, Dec. 21. If you are interested in participating, email me at rt@rioembudobirds.org. For more information, visit rioembudobirds.org.

For a map of the different New Mexico sites along with contact information for organizers, visit audubon.org/conservation/science/christmas-bird-count and look for "Join the Christmas Bird Count" box.

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