Christmas for the Birds
Local Audubon holds state’s oldest citizen science project with winter bird countLocal NewsWednesday, December 17, 2014
Forget about partridges in pear trees. Bring on the juncos in junipers.
Between now and Jan. 5 a dedicated group of local volunteer bird enthusiasts will brave the pre-dawn cold to participate in the Santa Fe chapter of the national Audubon Center’s Christmas Bird Count.
“There’s always that moment when your alarm first goes off and you forget why you’re getting up so early, but once you remember why you’re doing this, there’s this rush of excitement because you don’t know what you’re going to see,” says Wyatt Egelhoff, the leader of the Santa Be bird count.
The youngest leader in the state at 18 years of age, Egelhoff first got interested in ornithology thanks to classes at the Randall Davey Audubon Center in Santa Fe, and has been participating in the bird count for the past 3 years.
“It’s a really nice way to network with other people, you get to meet other birders, and other people end up finding neat birds that you can later go out and see.”
Audubon says the Santa Fe Christmas Bird Count first took place in 1953, making it the oldest such event in the state. Experienced and novice volunteers joining this “citizen’s science project” work with bird experts and a compiler to identify and track local bird populations.
“The real value in the Christmas Bird Count is that it’s over the same 15-mile radius, and it happens every year, so you get a snapshot every year of what’s happening within that circle,” explains Egelhoff.
Last year’s count totaled 224 species throughout the state. The individual count reached a new all-time high with 525,000 birds.
“It’s one of the longest-running sources of data we have for birds in the US during the wintertime,” says Carol Beidleman, Audubon New Mexico’s director of bird conservation. “It’s important to see how bird populations are changing.”
Beidleman first participated in the bird with her ornithologist father when she was younger, spurring her belief that the winter tally is a vital tool for teaching the next generation about “the native birds that are in our backyards.”
“He took me out to do counts when I was younger, which I enjoyed even though I was cold,” she remembers.
When the national Christmas Bird Count first began in 1899 in the eastern United States, its goal was to address the issue of people hunting birds for decorative feathers for use in lady’s hats. Nowadays, local and national bird populations face a different threat.
“Climate change is the biggest issue,” explains Egelhoff. “Certain species are moving north, and they’re moving their winter ranges, such as the American Gold Finch. It’s a unique example in terms of birds because in New Mexico 50 years ago, you could only find gold finches in Taos, and now they’re breeding in Santa Fe.”
Adding to the conversation, Beidleman addressed habitat loss, citing the pinyon jay (they spell it this way on prupose) as a local victim due to the loss of piñon juniper forests from drought, conversion to rangeland, and bark beetles.
Egelhoff also expressed concern for the black rosy-finches that nest at Sandia Crest, cautioning that climate change will affect their winter populations.
So far, 15 people have signed up for the ongoing bird count, but registration is still open on the Audubon website.