Decades of data track local bird populations
FARMINGTON — Nearly half a century after the first Audubon Christmas Bird Count in New York in 1900, a small group of birders arranged the first-ever Farmington Christmas bird count. That year, in 1946, the birders counted more than 2,600 birds.
Despite the success of the first year's count, it would be more than two decades before the next bird count recorded data in the Farmington area.
In 1968, a group of birders revived the count, and for nearly five decades since then, they have collected data that is used in scientific studies.
Now, each year, bird groups around the world choose one day within a three-week period to count birds in their region. This year, groups began counting on Monday. One group of local birders headed down to Chaco Culture National Historical Park on Monday to help with the park service's bird count.
Farmington's count, scheduled for Saturday, will center on the middle of the Farmington Lake dam. Birders will count birds within a 15-mile radius of the dam, and a couple of groups will walk the trails in Animas and Berg parks.
"We always use the same circle," said Donna Thatcher, an education specialist at Riverside Nature Center who is leading the birders in the parks.
Thatcher said data collected over decades in the same places every year allows scientists to spot trends in populations. Accumulating decades of data also negates the impact of a few yeas when, for example, bad weather meant birds were not as active.
"The more years you do it, the more it balances out weather and other differences between years," Thatcher said.
Some birders drive and other walk to tally up the birds. Some even watch the birds at their bird feeders.
Farmington's count is organized by Alan Nelson, who plans to bird at B-Square Ranch on Saturday as his wife, Sandy, watches birds at the couple's feeder. He expects to see thousands of waterfowl at B-Square Ranch.
Waterfowl are among the more common birds spotted during the count. Nelson said 75 percent of the birds recorded nowadays in Farmington are mallards and Canada geese.
But that hasn't always been the case. While mallards have typically topped the list of local birds in the annual counts, Canada geese populations have increased over the decades, according to data from the National Audubon Society. No Canada Geese were recorded in Farmington during the first count in 1946 nor in the 1968 count when birders revived the event. But since 1981, thousands of Canada geese have been counted each year.
Birds commonly associated with urban development, such as house sparrows and house finches, have also increased.
Still, over the years, other birds have dipped in popularity. Once the fourth most common bird sighted during the counts, only 13 red-winged blackbird were seen in Farmington in 2014, according to Audubon data.
“As the town has changed and grown, the habitats have changed,” Nelson said.
He also said Gambel's quail populations have declined because of habitat loss and predation from cats and dogs. Once a common bird with hundreds recorded in the counts, there were fewer than 20 Gambel’s quail last year in Farmington.
Local birders still need help this weekend counting birds in Glade Run Recreation Area and the area between Farmington and Bloomfield. Nelson said anyone who wants to help with the count should be able to identify birds. Only identified birds can be included in the count.
Birders can call Nelson at 505-325-8619 or 505-215-7122 to coordinate their efforts. People with feeders can also participate by watching the birds at their feeders.
Hannah Grover covers Aztec and Bloomfield, as well as general news, for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.
Top species in Farmington's bird counts over the last decade
Canada goose: More than 1,500 of the black, gray and white geese were counted during last year's Christmas Bird Count in Farmington. Donna Thatcher, an education specialist at Riverside Nature Center, said these geese winter in Farmington before flying north to their nesting grounds in the spring. While the birds currently in Farmington are wintering, the Canada goose is a year-round resident of Farmington, and other geese breed here in the spring.
Mallard: The male mallard is easily recognized by its bright green head. These ducks live in local ponds, lakes and rivers year-round. According to the National Audubon Society, the mallard is one of the most abundant ducks in the world. It is classified as a dabbling duck, which means it ducks its head under the water to graze on plants growing on the bottom of ponds, lakes or rivers.
European starling: The European starling was reportedly brought to North American in 1890 by fans of William Shakespeare since the bird was mentioned in Shakespeare's "Henry IV." In the late 1800s, a group hoped to introduce every bird mentioned in Shakespeare's plays to the United States. The starling was released in 1890 in New York City and has since spread across the country. It has consistently been one of the most abundant birds counted in Farmington since the local count began nearly 50 years ago. During the winter, the starling has white speckles on its feathers as its plumage wears down.
Rock pigeon: Considered a nuisance bird, the rock pigeon is a native of Europe, North Africa and India. According to the National Audubon Society, the rock pigeon now lives in cities around the world. It has a variety of color combinations, but the most common is the gray pigeon with iridescent green and pink feathers near its ears and white bars on its wings. These birds can be seen throughout Farmington, and the city has enacted ordinances forbidding people from feeding the bird.
American robin: The familiar bird can be seen plucking worms from lawns or perched in trees. It has a bright orange chest and a gray back. The male robin's head is darker than the rest of its gray feathers. The robin is one of several birds included in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's citizen science project, Celebrate Urban Birds. The project encourages people to set aside 10 minutes daily to record the urban birds they see. Other birds on the list are the American crow, barn swallow, cedar waxwing, European starling and rock pigeon. The project began in 2007, and, unlike the Christmas Bird Count, can be done at any time of the year.
Dark-eyed junco: The species encompasses several subspecies in the Farmington area. It is a small gray bird that often has a patch of brown on its back. The bird is easily identified while flying because of its white outer-tail feathers. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, there are about 15 subspecies of dark-eyed junco that live throughout the U.S. About one-third of those subspecies have been recorded in Farmington during Christmas bird counts.
More birding opportunities
Project FeederWatch: Put together by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Project FeederWatch encourages birders to record species of birds at their backyard feeders in the winter. People of all skill levels can participate in the project, and kits are available online to help birders get started. There is an $18 participation fee. The website also provides tips for birders on identifying birds and attracting them to feeders.
NestWatch: In the spring, birders can participate in a nationwide monitoring program called NestWatch. The program tracks nesting information such as how many eggs are laid, how many hatch and how many survive. Once a nest is found, the birder checks on it every three to four days. Birders can become certified nestwatchers at nestwatch.org.
Great Backyard Bird Count: Launched in 1998 by the National Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Great Backyard Bird Count operates similarly to the Christmas Bird Count. Over a four-day period in February, participants log the birds they see and submit the information online. They can also shoot photographs of the birds for a photo contest.
YardMap: This program collects data from people around the country about how they have chosen to landscape their yard. The participants answer questions about their yards and the wildlife that they see.
If you go
What: Christmas Bird Count
When: 8 a.m. to noon Saturday
Where: Riverside Nature Center off of Browning Parkway in Farmington
More info: Call 505-599-1422.