Christmas Bird Count – Sandia Mountains, New Mexico

We stood in the parking lot stomping our feet and rubbing our hands to keep warm in the 16 degree early morning cold while we checked in, paid our $5 fee and received our team assignments. And then the teams scattered to the 14 count areas in the Sandia Mountains to begin our eight-hour canvas of birds. This was only one of 32 different Christmas Bird Counts (CBC) occurring in New Mexico between December 14 and January 5.

This is the 108th year that citizen scientists have collected data on the number of each species seen within a given 15-mile circle. The compiled results of each count are fed into the National Audubon Society’s database and are used to track trends and identify birds that are at risk. During 2007, the National Audubon published its analysis of forty years of CBC data and identified twenty birds that had declined by at least fifty percent during the past four decades – thirteen which are regular summer or winter New Mexico residents.

My team of five covered the area on either side of Highway 14, north of Interstate 40 to the turn-off to the Crest. Andrew, our team leader, has been responsible for this route for the past four years. “This is my twelfth year participating in the Christmas Bird Count,” he told us. This is even more remarkable given that he is a junior in college.

We pulled into the first residential area north of the freeway, parked the car and scouted the trees along the road. The sun had not yet peeked over the top of the mountains. The birds were still under protective cover.

Our second stop was the area adjacent to the San Antonio de Padua church, and the just-risen sun brought a little bit of warmth. A flock of Crows flew overhead and we started counting. “I got nine.” Boyd said. Robins were squawking and flying between conifers – four, five no six. Two Scrub Jays announced their presence. A Townsend’s Solitaire perched on top of a fir tree.

For about an hour we trekked through the snow in the Bernalillo County Open Space behind the church, adding species and numbers to the birds already on our list.

Juncos scattered as we walked along the road in the old village of San Antonio. It took all of our eyes to capture the numbers and sub-species. A raptor flew overhead and then landed on top of a tree on an adjacent hill. Its white breast glistened in the morning light; however, it was nestled in the branches making it difficult to identify. Not wanting to leave without adding it to our tally, Andrew headed up the road toward it hoping it would flush. It did, and we added Red-tailed Hawk to the list.

We started driving through residential neighborhoods on the east side of Highway 14. Our vehicle had a sign taped to the rear window, “Official Car – National Audubon Society,” to hopefully allay residents’ fears when a car full of binocular-wielding people slowed and peered into their yard.

At San Antonito, flocks of Western Bluebirds flashed their cobalt blue wings as they flew from their perches along the power lines. House Finches and American Goldfinches joined them.

We headed south on Highway 14, checking the residential areas and an RV Park on the west side of the road.

Teams began gathering at the Four Hills Dion’s at four. Our team double-checked our list and entered the data on the official form. We had seen 29 different species, including over 300 Juncos.

You could feel the electricity in the room as participants began sharing stories.

“We walked up the Pino Trail from Elena Gallegos,” Nancy said. “My feet are wet from the snow; however, we saw 31 different species.”

“We saw 14 Red-tailed Hawks in Sandia Park,” Karen reported.

“There was a Cactus Wren and a White-throated Sparrow on the Embudito Trail,” Jim reported.

“Golden-crowned Kinglets were practically falling off the trees,” joked Marcus, who had covered the lower part of the road heading up to the Crest. “And,” he continued, “Brown Creepers were in flocks.”

Nick, the official compiler, began reading through the list of birds that had been seen during prior counts. The tally included 68 species. Last year’s record was 70.

A number of the participants took part in other central New Mexico counts. Rebecca, the count organizer, was a team leader for the Albuquerque and Bosque del Apache counts. “When I participated in my first count in 1988, I couldn’t tell a Raven from a Crow,” Rebecca relayed. “I was discouraged after that first year, but in 1993 I started helping with the Albuquerque CBC and have been doing it every year since then, counting birds in the Corrales area every year since 1994.”

This was my first year participating in the CBC and my second count. It is a satisfying feeling to know that I was part of a citizen science effort numbering over 52,000 participants and, according to Greg Butcher, Manager of Conservation for the National Audubon Society, “is the oldest and largest wildlife survey in the world.”

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