Friday, May 20, 2011

North American Migration Count

Watching birds; it's fun!
     In times past, egrets and herons (those long-legged gangly wading birds) were hunted mercilessly for their plumage--large draping feathers that adorned women's hats, the "in" style in the late 1800's. A popular pastime in the south, where they were plentiful in the wintertime, was to spend Christmas Day hunting the bejeezus out of these birds (no regulations were in existence), trying to see who could kill the most in a day. Sounds crazy nowadays, but at the time, the mere thought that humans could have an effect on bird populations was simply not considered--nor really cared about.

     However, in 1900, a few observant nature lovers sounded the alarm that these birds were declining precipitously in the American south, and proposed a new idea. Instead of hunting birds, what if citizens went outdoors and simply counted these birds to try to get a census or some notion of how many were out there? Over time, perhaps these counts could help inform management and conservation. Thus began the Christmas Bird Count (CBC), a well-known bird survey that occurs in December not only across this country, but now around the world. With that simple idea, a phenomenon was born--that of "citizen science," where ordinary people, people like you and me, can help change the tide of conservation merely through their observations and documentation.

     One hundred years later, numerous surveys exist for bird lovers. One is called the North American Migration Count (NAMC). Held during the peak of songbird migration, when birds are flowing back into the United States from their wintering grounds, this survey is similar in concept to the CBC. Every bird is counted and identified by species. In the case of the NAMC, surveys are organized by county. For many states, that could be pretty overwhelming, as dozens upon dozens of counties exist. For Arizona, we only have 15 counties. I am in charge of organizing and compiling all the survey data for Apache County, a long, narrow county along the northeast corner of the state, encompassing a part of the Navajo/Hopi reservations, southward into the Apache National Forest.

      I try to get as many people as possible to help on the survey. I corral my birdwatching friends, bribe our local Audubon members, and bug my colleagues at the U.S. Forest Service office to help. I'll establish teams of people to cover different "birdy" places, like streams, lakes, and key wildlife areas. We've had good years and we've had dud years. Regardless, like others say of fishing, a day spent birdwatching (no matter how it lands on the "dud" scale) is better than a day doing practically anything else. Fresh air, camaraderie, and visiting highly scenic places makes for a great day.
West Fork of the Little CO River in Greer Valley
     This year was better than any other since I started organizing these counts about 6 years ago. First of all, some very nice people I've never met contacted me offering to help; they had heard about the count through our Audubon Chapter newsletter. Ken from the Petrified Forest National Park e-mailed me offering to bird that area. I've never been able to get people up that way, and there are grasslands and interesting birds that could be completely different than the suite of birds our team would generally see. Then, Jill and Tom, a retired couple visiting the Greer valley (a simply stunning valley with a very small village and dotted with lakes, streams, and mixed-conifer forest) offered to bird that area, which was extremely helpful since we normally weren't able to get to Greer until later on in the day when the birds have quieted down. Then, Liz and Tom offered to survey yet another wildlife area that I never seem to get to during this frenzied birding day, the Sipe White Mountain Wildlife Area. And then, another Audubon member, Kent, was conducting a survey for a different citizen-science monitoring project that happened to occur in Apache County, and he would add his tally to our count.

     Another lady, Mary, contacted me to see if she could join in. She's starting a birdwatching club for her RV subdivision, putting on bird programs and field trips, and she wanted to see some new places. Deb and Cathy, two Forest Service friends, offered to help survey our high-elevation lakes. Wow! So, my team of Barb, Evelyn, Mary, and myself were set (although we missed our other "usual" birder, Ann). We could survey the Little Colorado River and its environs around the Springerville-Eagar area without feeling rushed, because many of our other haunts were covered by volunteer birders.

     Our team started at the Wenima Wildlife Area, a state-owned stretch of the Little Colorado with wonderful riparian habitat, stringers of native black walnut trees, open meadows, and some agricultural fields that are now managed for wildlife. The first three birds we saw were unusual for that area, harbingers of the day to come. First, an olive-sided flycatcher was hanging out in the trees around the parking lot. Not necessarily an unusual bird, but I had never seen one at Wenima. Then, a Swainson's thrush, a quiet, secretive bird of the pine forest and most likely migrating through, was probing a mud puddle in a rut from a dirt road, right in plain sight. Very cool.

California Quail, photo by Barbara Davis

     Then, however, we struck gold. About 40 years ago, a private landowner several miles downstream of this area introduced California quail onto his property, which became the only population of that species in the state. Over the years, this bird has sort of been a "ghost" species. Some people claim to see them still on occasion, others only hear about them, and still others simply don't believe they exist anymore. Well, they do. One of our group spotted a quail (highly unusual unto itself as we really don't have alot of quail in the area) on a fence pole, and exclaimed "Gambel's quail!" thinking it was the common desert quail found over much of the state. We all focused on the bird, and it just didn't seem right to me. I've seen hundreds of Gambel's, and this one was, well, different. It clicked, and we looked at the field guide under California quail. Voila. The patterns and markings were identical to the field guide. The bird then flew into a cottonwood and sang. Definitely not your Gambel's. And, best of all, a life-bird for Barb, Mary, and me. Evelyn, who lived in California for awhile, ho-hummed about the event; this was no new find for her!

Two American dippers; baby on the left,
mama on the right
    Well, that set the tone for the day. It was sunny, warm, and birds were everywhere. Some standouts for us included about 135 cliff swallows flying around a bridge over the river; a rough-legged hawk in the same area, and, after meeting up with Jill and Tom in Greer, a wonderful sighting of a juvenile American dipper being fed by one of its parents. American dippers (formerly called Water Ouzels, a great name) are these little nondescript gray birds that have an unusual behavior pattern. They feed on aquatic insects that are found in generally cold, clear, rushing streams. They stand on a rock and perform what gives them their name: they "dip", or basically do quick little leg squats looking through the water for their food. When they find something that no doubt you nor I would never see, they plop themselves into the cold rushing stream, sink all the way into the water, and eventually come out somewhere else with a bug in their mouth.

     There are several great things about dippers. First of all, they're the only one of their family found in the United States. Other dipper species are found elsewhere, but we only have American dippers. Second, they are the hallmark of clean water. If you see a dipper, it's likely that the stream they are using will generally be unpolluted and have a healthy aquatic insect base, the foundation for the entire food chain of said stream. Alternatively, if you've seen dippers in a creek in the past, and now they're gone, it's likely that something has happened to that stream to degrade it. In Arizona's case, there are in fact some streams that are apparently missing their dippers. The Arizona Breeding Bird Atlas, a survey of birds across the state between 1993 and 2000, has indicated that there are a lack of dippers in areas where they were previously recorded. No one really knows why they disappeared, as the streams and surrounding forested habitat are on National Forest lands and have remained relatively similar in condition over the years. Speculation is that crayfish may have played a role in their disappearance.

     Crayfish are non-native, invasive aquatic species. When a system evolved with crayfish, there are checks and balances to their populations. When a system has not evolved with them, and they're introduced or move into a stream, there are no checks and balances. Crayfish eat everything: fish, stream vegetation, juvenile garter snakes, toads, frogs, and...aquatic insects, the food source for dippers. Crayfish are not native to Arizona, but were introduced decades ago for various reasons. Now, in stream systems where they are present, they literally take over, eating everything until there is nothing left but a muddy, silty stream. There is no known control for these monsters. All right, off of my soapbox. Suffice it to say that my Apache County NAMC is simply not complete unless I see a dipper.

     A sampling of photos from our day outdoors:

A rare pair of large mature ponderosa pines

Rocky Mountain Iris

Apache Trout, our native trout species, in the West Fork
of the Little Colorado River in Greer
   All in all, we had a great day. My group saw over 60 species, including one Great Egret, a bird that was persecuted for its spectacular plumage in the past, and one that ignited the first Christmas Bird Count 110 years ago. A fitting sighting, no?


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