>>Citizen Science


Each holiday season, for more than a century, thousands of volunteers have helped keep tabs on our nation's bird populations by taking part in Audubon's Christmas Bird Count. Now the census has headed south.

By David Standish
Photograph by Chip Simons

With Nacacharamba looming on the horizon, birders along the Aduana Arroyo road in Sonora, Mexico, look for species like the varied bunting.


Since the first 27 people took to the field, the number of Christmas Bird Count (CBC) participants has grown to more than 50,000 annually, hailing from all 50 states as well as 24 countries and island territories. Not only are the counts fun—we birdwatchers are, after all, the accountants of nature, hooked on numbers—they are "citizen science," in which everyday people collect valuable data. The CBC is the longest-running volunteer-based bird census anywhere, and its century's worth of observation provides important insights into bird populations. By studying this information, scientists can determine the winter distribution of birds, the status of resident and migrant species, and—in recent years—the effect of such developments as West Nile virus.

"On any given census the numbers may fluctuate quite a bit year to year," says Geoff LeBaron, director of the Christmas count. "But what's important is what's happening in the long term. The CBC is the same body of people in the same areas at the same time of year counting birds in the same way. So as you start looking at decade-long chunks of data, even if there's a wobble, it's still a meaningful trend."

Years ago I participated in my first Christmas count, at 2,100-acre Indiana Dunes State Park at the south end of Lake Michigan, east of Chicago. It was one of those bone-chilling blue arctic days. A pal and I spent eight solid hours in freezing weather, traipsing up and down the empty dunes and through leafless oak groves, for a final tally of, I think, nine species. Since then the CBC has spread south of the border to Latin America, the Caribbean, and Mexico. This year I wised up and went with it.

Snuggled against the Sierra foothills near the Sinaloa border—nearly 500 miles south of Tucson, Arizona—Alamos, in the Mexican state of Sonora, sits at the collision of three habitats: the southern end of the Sonoran Desert, the Sierra Madre, and the northern extreme of Central America's tropical deciduous forest. More than 300 species of birds have been seen in the area, and thanks to this convergence, jungle standouts like the russet-crowned motmot practically share a tree with thorn-scrub beauties like the black-throated magpie jay.

Alamos itself is a treat to behold. Its 10,000 residents seem to live in a town that time forgot. To walk its narrow, unchanged streets is to feel swept back to the 18th century: In the city center there is no neon, no blacktop, no construction unlike the original colonial architecture. Today Alamos is arguably the most pristine, true-to-its-school Spanish colonial town in Mexico.

This old-world charm and the rare medley of birdlife, just a long day's drive from Tucson, lured three couples, all longtime close friends, here for the 104th Christmas Bird Count. I was taken under their collective wing—for me, a terrific stroke of luck. I had stumbled into some of the most agreeable people I'd ever met, and some of the best birders on the planet.

Clive Green and his wife, Mary Jean Hage, have chased birds across the world, and Clive's the author of birding guides to Ecuador, South Africa, and Namibia. His life list is a little more than 5,000. Rick Taylor and his wife, Lynne, are the founders of a nature-travel company called Borderland Tours, and Rick is the author of the American Birding Association's Birder's Guide to Southeastern Arizona. In 1988 he set a still-standing "big year" record in Mexico of 717 species. The third couple was Kenn Kaufman and his wife, Lynn. She is the director of education at the Tucson Botanical Gardens, while Kenn is the best-known and simply the best birder around these days. His Kingbird Highway recounts the year he dropped out of high school at age 16 to chase birds; today, besides serving as an Audubon field editor, he oversees a growing series of Kaufman Field Guides, with volumes on North American birds, butterflies, and mammals.

My own splendid credentials? Well, I really like birding, you know? And my North American life list is almost 300!

At 5:30 a.m. on the big day, I met all 16 participants—half visitors, half locals—at La Ciudadela, the small guest house owned by the count's compilers, David and Jennifer MacKay. Well, everyone except for Rick and David, that is, who by 4:00 a.m. had already left for the strenuous climb up Sierra de Alamos to score species not found at lower elevations. Happy to sleep in, I opted to tag along with Clive, Mary Jean, Kenn, and the two Lynn(e)s to El Mentidero, a small canyon that meets the Rio Cuchujaqui about half a mile from the road.

Clive's vintage orange Chevy Blazer threatens to fly apart at every bump in the rough road. At Mentidero Canyon we stop at a low fordlike bridge and pull off onto a track that wiggles along the streambed toward the Cuchujaqui. It is still pretty close to black dark, and cold. The temperature was 60 degrees Fahrenheit as we left town, but here, 20 minutes later and just a few miles away, it's 39 degrees.

We stand in a clump on the track. Kenn begins his ferruginous pygmy owl imitation—an insistent, repeating, one-note, hollow upslurred whistle. The call typically elicits a mobbing response on the part of many smaller birds, including warblers and vireos, a sort of Oh, yeah, buster? We're not scared of you! On this cold early morning, however, the birds aren't having any of it. Darkness and silence—at least to me. But Kenn cups his hands behind his ears, creating homemade amplifiers, and slowly turns his torso like a lighthouse beam. "Wilson's warbler . . . Nutting's flycatcher . . ." I can't hear a thing. I do catch one whoosh. "Mourning dove." Kenn can even identify wingbeats. Gradually the blackness attenuates to gray, and then there's a hint of rosy-fingered dawn. "Magpie jays!" he exclaims happily, but again I don't hear them. "Dusky-capped flycatcher. They're really vocal at dawn. Two more Wilson's."

"Why do they call it birdwatching?" he jokes, a bit sheepishly.
Our first actual sightings are skyward: two ravens flying over, a small flock of mallards, and a great blue heron cruising serenely before a mountain pink with new light.

It's a little after eight when we reach the junction of the Mentidero and the Cuchujaqui. The riverbed, 65 yards across, is almost completely dry in this season—a rough farrago of exposed bedrock, gravel, and stone of many persuasions. Much of it is bearded with scrub and low, green thickets of seep willow. The river makes a long, wide curve here through a 150-foot canyon, and along its edge a succession of clear, slender pools shine like a broken necklace beneath ancient sabinos, bald cypresses clinging for dear life to the bedrock riverbank. Their lacy foliage is a swirl of green and russet dreamily reflected in the still water.

This lovely setting—in fact, the entire course of the river included in the Alamos count area—was recently established as the 200,000-acre Sierra de Alamos–Rio Cuchujaqui Forest Reserve. As with many such designations, it now exists primarily on paper, but documenting the habitat's wildlife can help put some teeth into its protection. Just another good reason to conduct a Christmas Bird Count here.

As the day warms, the list just keeps getting better: ladder-back woodpecker, social flycatcher, tufted flycatcher, varied bunting, black-headed grosbeak, happy wren, red-billed pigeon, white-winged dove, sharp-shinned hawk, verdin, orange-crowned warbler, rufous-capped warbler, lark sparrow, plain-capped starthroat, curve-billed thrasher, black-throated gray warbler, violet-crowned hummingbird, streak-backed oriole—and then one of my favorites, the groove-billed ani. Its splee-oh! chirps seem more like hiccups, kicking up the anis' tails and practically dislodging them from their twiggy perches. "They're wonderful when they fly," says Kenn admiringly. "They look like they're coming apart."

As we head back to the vehicles, we finally get a good view of a pair of black-throated magpie jays, arguably the most extravagant—and noisy—birds found here. They look like blue jays redesigned with the 1958 Cadillac El Dorado in mind: flamboyant, overdone, with 8-inch bodies and 14-inch tails.

When we return to La Ciudadela for our afternoon assignments, I draw duty with Kenn and Clive. Soon we are climbing a rutted, uneven gravel road past a dump—a scene Dante would have appreciated. Mounds of garbage spill down the hillside, and several low, rumbling fires make the ground appear to smoke as if leaking straight from hell. The dirtiest, meanest cat in Mexico saunters through, feral as the day is long. But the crowning touch for us is a choir of vultures, both black and turkey, perched in some leafless trees amid the smoldering heaps; they are rapt, as if they're watching the best movie they've ever seen.

We abandon the Blazer for a foot trail along the mountain. A wooded barranca drops to our right, a ravine as lovely as the dump is horrific and not 200 yards from it. It is late afternoon, and the light is beginning to slant toward what photographers reverently call the magic hour.

And it really is pretty magical.

Here, where the tropical deciduous forest meets the Sonoran Desert, organ-pipe cacti grow among fig and kapok trees. Though this stand remains untouched, there are huge pressures on the forest—not just around Alamos but all over southern Sonora. More and more ranches encroach, and the ranchers plant bufflegrass, an exotic species, which simply blows away the native competition. Then there are the marijuaneros, who cultivate their own crops. A new societal wrinkle combines these problems: The drug lords buy huge estancias, primarily as status symbols, and then plant bufflegrass and raise cattle, which together kill off the forest.

The air is cooler up here, with a crispness to it, as if you could bite off a bit and chew it like an apple. Clive spots a hermit thrush down in the shady barranca. Kenn is excited. He wants a good look so he can figure out the subspecies, a pretty good indicator of the ornithological realm he travels in. We continue along the path toward where Jennifer had told us we might find a motmot, toward a vast old fig tree that grows at a fork in the trail and whose ancient limbs dominate this part of the forest.

No motmot, but there are a bunch of rufous-backed robins skittering around, and sitting still, stately, an elegant trogon. This is truth in naming. It is a 12-inch bird with a yellow beak and a black head, an emerald green back and throat, a white breast band above a red belly, and a long coppery tail that's barred underneath. Related to the sacred quetzal, its range extends south all the way to Costa Rica.

We continue up the mountain trail to see what we can, but at this late hour it's not much. Clive trains his binoculars on a distant ridge, then switches to a scope. I take a turn looking. Even magnified as it is, what I see are two dark globs sitting on the branches of a leafless tree. And here is where Clive and Kenn show powers beyond those of mere mortals. After a certain amount of discussion and repeated looks, they determine that one of the little globs is a greater peewee, and the other a yellow-rumped warbler—a bird five inches long. This from half a mile away!

We turn back in the tattered afternoon light, and meet the rest of the group on the roof of La Ciudadela. We're after one last bird.

Like us, the merlin is on stakeout here at dusk. It sits patiently in a tall palm, staring at a building whose second floor has long been abandoned by all but opportunistic bats. As sunlight fails, they swarm out by twos and threes and fours. The merlin rises high into the sky and dive-bombs his unsuspecting dinner.

Zoom, pow!

In Alamos, the 104th Christmas Bird Count is complete.

Two months later I am at home in Chicago, where bleak gray and cold seemed to have taken up permanent residence. I find myself daydreaming of that swoop of the river by still, clear pools when I hear from David MacKay.

We counted a total of 158 species of birds in Alamos, he says. Highlights were the mottled owl, common pauraque, Montezuma quail, buff-collared nightjar, russet-crowned motmot, and white-striped woodcreeper. And I hadn't seen a single one of them! All told, there were a lot of birds tallied that I didn't spot, though in my defense I couldn't be at more than one place at a time.

In Mexico much remains to be known about resident birds, as well as the migrants that spend much of their lives wintering there. "The CBC represents a great opportunity to involve not only professional ornithologists but local people," says Claudia Macías Caballero, count coordinator for Belize and Mexico. "Besides having fun and enjoying birds and nature, they can provide valuable information for governments, agencies, and other organizations to focus conservation initiatives. It's important that people know that wildlife conservation is a task for everybody."

Plus, as new count circles are being located on Important Bird Areas—specially designated as critical habitat—CBCs provide crucial data about how well these areas are conserving biodiversity, and can help determine priorities there.

As for out-of-towners like me, who put down our figgy pudding to flock to regions we don't often get to see, the Christmas Bird Count is a hallowed holiday tradition. It introduces us to an unusual mix of species, as well as walks us through habitat—like the Rio Cuchujaqui and the tropical deciduous forest—that really is worth protecting.

For information about participating in the 2004 Christmas Bird Count or to map bird distribution and population trends yourself, log on to www.audubon.org/bird/cbc. For information about visiting Alamos, including where to birdwatch, go to www.alamosmexico.com.



© 2004 National Audubon Society

Sound off! Send a letter to the editor
about this piece.

Enjoy Audubon on-line? Check out our print edition!


Trendsetting: Rusty Blackbird
Audubon's Christmas Bird Count (CBC) and the national Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), sponsored by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), are two of the most comprehensive bird surveys in the Western Hemisphere. For species well sampled by both, population trends are largely in sync, and the numbers from both surveys for the rusty blackbird—which breeds in the forested wetlands of Alaska and Canada, and winters mainly in the U.S. Southeast—dropped sharply in the past 40 years. "People think blackbirds are abundant, but the rusty blackbird is highly specialized and as a consequence not as adaptable," says Audubon senior scientist Dan Niven. "It's suffered a severe decline, and no one's paid attention."

Besides reinforcing the imperative that certain species are in need of further research, the two different surveys fill in critical data gaps. Since 1900, CBC participants have been spending one day each winter counting birds within 15-mile-diameter circles. Since 1962, BBS volunteers have been monitoring birds at half-mile intervals along established 24.5-mile routes during a single day in June. Some species that summer in Canada's boreal forest, such as the Harris's sparrow and the northern shrike, are largely missed by the Breeding Bird Survey because they nest in areas with few census routes or volunteers. These same species commonly winter in the United States or southern Canada, however, where they are recorded in the Christmas Bird Count.

This year, in partnership with the USGS, Audubon's science team will begin analyzing the past 40 years of CBC data—now organized into one giant database—to determine how such overlooked species are really faring. Next the team will be updating Audubon's WatchList of species at risk, which until now has been based almost exclusively on the Breeding Bird Survey. There are more questions to be explored in the database, such as whether birds' winter ranges are linked to global warming. The answers hold tremendous conservation potential. Says CBC director Geoff LeBaron, "We'll be like kids in a candy store."

—Jennifer Bogo