Tallying Valley’s winged visitors is a holiday tradition - East Valley Tribune: Get Out

Tallying Valley’s winged visitors is a holiday tradition

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Posted: Tuesday, December 23, 2008 3:31 pm | Updated: 9:15 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Tempe retiree Cynthia Donald has a holiday tradition she sticks to like clockwork.

Every year around Christmastime, she drives to a Circle K way out on U.S. 60 and waits in the dark before the sun comes up. One by one, vehicles pull in, headlights on. Men, women and children step out into the chilly desert morning, each dressed in layers and equipped with binoculars and a field guide.

Sibley Field Guide, birds of Western North America, Christmas Bird Count, Audubon Society, <a href=www.birdsource.org/gbbc, www.audubon.org/bird/cbc" />
LOOKOUT: Volunteers look up a bird in the Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America.

Most days, they're average birders, ID-ing thrushes, sapsuckers and sparrows as a hobby. But on this day, they're part of an army; Donald and her companions are carrying out the Christmas Bird Count, a 109-year-old Audubon Society tradition. For three weeks every December and January, tens of thousands of everyday people across the Western Hemisphere fan out across wilderness areas and manicured green spaces, taking a census of every bird they see and hear.

The data they collect is posted on Audubon's Web site almost right away and used by ornithologists and conservation biologists, says Audubon's Christmas Bird Count director, Geoff LeBaron.

"The Christmas Bird Count has become one of the most important tools for long-term monitoring of bird populations over time. Using information from the count, researchers are comparing 10-year chunks, and they're able to see which species have shifted their ranges, which are wintering farther north than they used to, which are just declining everywhere. It enables us to see patterns over time, and with that kind of information, we can look at how we think things might play out in the future," says LeBaron.

In Arizona, there are approximately 34 Christmas Bird Counts every winter, taking birders from all walks of life deep into riparian pockets at the bottom of desert canyons and along wooded, high-country trails. Each covers a circle with a 15-mile radius and lasts all day, come rain or shine.

"We split into groups, and we're on the move, moving slowly and deliberately. Most of us eat lunch on the tailgate of a truck or on a nearby rock," says Walter Thurber, a Scottsdale urban planner who coordinates the Carefree count, to be held Jan. 2.

His circle includes the towns of Carefree and Cave Creek, Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area, Cave Creek Regional Park and parts of Tonto National Forest. On average, 75 volunteers sign up. Experienced birders are paired with novices, and teams take great care to uncover and document signs of avian life, such as the sometimes dozens of silent quail hiding behind a sentry bird's solitary call.

"Every bird counts," says Thurber, "but it's always exciting to see something unusual. We're always thrilled when we see winter finches that breed in the Rocky Mountains and Canada. They don't usually come this far south during the winter, but every three or four years there's an eruption of some of these species, maybe because the food crop isn't so good up there."

Birds of prey are also exciting.

"We're starting to find peregrine falcons," Thurber says. "They were endangered not too many years ago. They're usually fly-overs. They might be hanging out in rocky cliffs up in the hills, or they might be birds from downtown Phoenix that are up there hunting. They roost and nest on bridges and tall buildings downtown. They're strong birds and can cover a lot of ground in a short time."

Donald leads the Superior count, scheduled for Jan. 5. The circle includes Boyce Thompson Arboretum - a veritable bird magnet - Oak Flat and mountainous areas so remote that, in years past, a small group of volunteers experienced in backcountry hiking have opted to go in the day before and camp.

"The Christmas Count really becomes an important part of a lot of people's holiday tradition. It's something they want to do year after year, and they'll go to great efforts to do it," says LeBaron, who is based in Massachusetts. "We know of one guy, in Iowa, who at least twice, has done 23 counts in 23 days."

It's a prize Donald keeps her sights on through seasonal tasks like addressing Christmas cards, trimming the tree, wrapping presents and baking.

"As crazy as it sounds, it is so restful and relaxing. We're out there in the dark and the cold, and it's tiring, but it takes me away from all the holiday madness that exists everywhere else. No one's in a hurry; there's no shopping," says Donald. "You spend a whole day out in nature, with a group of people you've maybe never met before, and you have a good time. You feel like you're contributing to something important."

Christmas Bird Count

A dozen Christmas Bird Counts are scheduled across Arizona, from Carefree and Superior to Sedona and Camp Verde, between now and Jan. 5. After that, they start up again in December 2009. You must contact a bird count circle's compiler to participate, and there is a $5 cost for observers in the field. There is no charge for observers age 18 and younger or for birders who volunteer to conduct the count at bird feeders on their property. To find circles in our area, visit www.audubon.org/bird/cbc and click on the "Get Involved" link.

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