Slowly, slowly,” says Dale Thayer, approaching the underbrush. “… Try to surround it.” Shadows grow long at Boyce Thompson Arboretum, where the 67-year-old Canadian has been working all day on the Audubon Society Bird Count.
He’s burned substantial shoe leather hoping to spot a brown thrasher — a bird more rare and elegant than its name implies. His chances have been dying with the light until now. A brown thrasher, or the umpteenth spotted towhee, darts between shadows under a shrub, trashing the undergrowth like a cranky rock star. “C’mon …” Thayer whispers as he closes in. “… Who are you?”
The Christmas Bird Count is an Audubon Society tradition. Each December and January, a volunteer army of 50,000 bird enthusiasts fans out across every accessible wilderness area in the nation to take a grassroots census of the avian population. The final day of Arizona’s 2006 count began in Superior last month. In the frigid, pre-dawn hours, two dozen coffee-clutching birders assembled under a full moon at the local Circle K.
“It’s basically a citizen snapshot of the overall bird population,” says Craig Fischer, an experienced birder, who will lead group II through the arboretum to count heads of the 50-plus species residing there. They also have a “hit list” of exotic birds they hope to see. “A rufous-backed robin and a broad-billed hummingbird have been spotted out there,” he says. “And, if you’re a ‘Beverly Hillbillies’ fan, we’re hoping to spot that favorite of Miss Jane Hathaway, the yellow-bellied sapsucker.”
Each count covers a 15-mile radius. Fischer splits his group into three teams to cover the arboretum’s separate trails. He and Thayer move quietly along the Main Loop Trail. “Pish, pish, pish,” he calls, and several curious towhees peek out to be counted.
“Who are you?” Thayer murmurs, to any swaying tree limbs or trailside rustling. Some birds are just a distant flash of color. Others, like the morning’s second cardinal, hop onto the footpath demanding attention. Binoculars ever-ready, the men blow their hands warm as they stoop and stretch to every call. “You’ll have ‘warbler neck’ by the end of the day,” says Fischer.
Thayer points to a high branch. “Who’s working the left fork of that Tamarisk?” It’s a Bullock’s oriole — and Fischer tallies it in a small notebook.
“Morning is the most productive time,” says Thayer, noting the trees are already aglow at the very top. “As the sun works its way down the tree canopy, you’ll hear the birds wake up. They’ll be hungry, and active. That’s when we’ll see the most of them.” Fischer finds a tree that looks like it has been raked by a tiny machine gun.
“Sapsuckers,” he says. “They peck just deep enough to draw sap. But we don’t know if this is a yellow-bellied or a red-naped (sapsucker).” As the sun warms the canyon, a catlike yowling can be heard. “Ruby-crowned kinglets,” says Fischer, counting the oliveand-white birds above. “They’ll come down from the high trees to scold us, and you can just catch this neon red dot on the top of their heads in the light.”
This is Fischer’s fourth count. He concerns himself only with accurate numbers, refusing to speculate on their implications. “We leave that to the scientists,” he says. “They get our raw data, and figure in drought cycles, El Niño and other factors they know of.”
Fischer, a publicist for Banner hospitals, is out here on a labor of love today. Birds have always interested him. But one he observed, in the Bolsa Chica wetlands, inspired him to closer study.
“It was a black skimmer,” he recalls. “They fly just above the water, their lower jaw cutting a contrail on the surface as they try to pick up fish. I was fascinated. You start realizing how much is out there. Even in densely packed places like Orange County.”
THRASHER IN THE RYE
Lunch brings the group together, merging lists under a paloverde tree. “I’ve done well,” says Anne Peyton, Fischer’s wife, offering her list. She has recorded more than 30 species. “I thought I saw a female cardinal,” she says. “Then I got closer and said: ‘You’re not a cardinal, you’re a rufous-backed robin!’ I’ll show you where it was, so you don’t think I’m on crack.”
Group members munch trail mix as Fischer combines their lists. The yellow-bellied sapsucker was counted, and the broad-billed hummingbird announced herself early. The Bullock’s oriole sighting draws “oohs” and “aahs,” as does Peyton’s unexpected find: “Down by the herb garden,” she says. “I saw a brown thrasher.” Once their findings are recorded, the groups disperse to count more birds.
“I’d really like to see that brown thrasher,” says Thayer with a smile. “It would be my first.” But a side trip to the herb garden yields no sign of him. So Thayer counts in the creek bed along the northern rim. The retired teacher splits time between Victoria Island in Canada and Apache Junction, sharing tales of birds in both locales.
The hobby kind of crept up on him. “When you retire, you take lots of walks,” he says. “You see birds. You say: ‘I want to see that bird better,’ So you buy binoculars. You see the bird better. Then you ask: ‘What IS that bird?’ So you buy a book to find out,” he says. “It builds from there.”
A tiny black bird hops along creek bed. A black Phoebe. As it’s recorded, a beautiful, silvery-brown bird pokes out from an adjacent tree. Thayer freezes. “Cedar waxwing,” he whispers. Suddenly, a cloud of cedar waxwings burst skyward, curving gracefully along the creek bed. “They always travel in groups,” he says.
Counting slows in the afternoon, as birds hunker down in the shade. But Thayer ambles tirelessly over creekside, gardens and high trail — and a couple of more trips to the herb garden. “Use it while you’ve still got it,” says Thayer on a pause along the high trail. But the sun is sinking. The park is closing soon. Thayer decides to head back to the rendezvous by way of the herb garden.
Initial figures on the bird count will be available on the National Audubon Society’s Web site later this week (www.audubon.org). The local numbers are impressive: 5,496 birds counted in the Superior region; 107 different species. In Area II, around the arboretum, 70 different species were recorded, more than 1,200 birds in all. These numbers will be added to a list reaching back to 1900, the longest-running data set of amateur science in the world.
“Biologists use the data,” says Peyton. “Climatologists can use it to look 100 years back, to see how birds were behaving, and understand why. This year, in Gila County, we saw mountain bluebirds for the first time. Hawks that normally migrate are staying. There are reasons in the ways animals move. There’s a lot to find in those numbers.” And a few things to celebrate, as well.
“There he is!” Thayer exults, as the brown thrasher pokes out. He’s quite striking: chestnut feathers atop a white streaked belly and irritated glances for the people surrounding him. “Brown thrasher. My first,” says Thayer. And with a nod, he returns to the path, leaving the thrasher to thrash. “Beautiful bird, wasn’t he?” Thayer says in the stretching shadows. “Makes my day.”