Hooked on the Christmas Bird Count

Audubon logoThis past weekend was the 112th National Audubon Christmas Bird Count when tens of thousands of citizen scientists all over the country brave winter conditions to do a census of their local bird population. In my Chiricahua Mountain community of Portal, Arizona, it was the 38th annual count — and no courage was required with sunny skies, no wind, and temperatures in the 60s.

House finchI’m — at best — a rookie birder, but I got to tag along on Reed Peter’s 2-mile territory that extended from his Cave Creek Ranch to Sunny Flats Campground at an elevation of about 5,000′.  We saw a total of 41 species, including house finches, lesser goldfinches, white-breasted nuthatches, Gambel’s quail, many Mexican jays, along with canyon towhees, two red-naped sapsuckers, and lots of white-crowned sparrows. Most unusual was the arrival of a Scott’s Oriole on the ranch feeder!

Acorn woodpecker

My favorite bird is still the clownish acorn woodpecker — tragically, we arrived too late to rescue one from a passing Cooper’s hawk.

Sunday was the 37th annual Peloncillo count across the state line near Animas, New Mexico, and again I tagged along, this time with Reed Peters, Peg Abbott, of Naturalist Journeys, and a birder named Steve from Santa Fe. Wow — what a magnificent area! Our territory was a chunk of the Dunnegan Ranch, which is part of the 322,000-acre Nature Conservancy Gray Ranch, owned by the Animas Foundation and usually closed to the public. We traversed desert flats and sprawling grasslands, crossed clear flowing streams, scampered through narrow canyons, and crunched across oak/juniper woodlands. We recorded 46 species — and about 40 were ones we didn’t see in the higher elevations during yesterday’s count. Most of all, I learned that sparrows are HARD to identify! We saw hundreds of them, including Bairds, grasshopper, savannah, Brewers, white-crowned, black-throated, chipping, lark, and vespers.

Watching the prairie falcon skim over the grass tops, the roadrunner bask in the early morning sun on top of a juniper, and seeing a cloud of 100 mountain bluebirds descend into a nearby tree were sights I won’t soon forget.

Many thanks to the ever-patient Reed and Peg! I’m definitely hooked and hope to be more knowledgable this time next year when the next Christmas count rolls around…

Big valley and Animas Mtns

Peg Abbott soaks up the view of grasslands stretching across the Gray Ranch toward the snow-capped Animas Mountains.

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