More than one in every five New Mexicans are bird-watchers, according to Audubon New Mexico. And most of those people are likely taking part in the annual Great Backyard Bird Count this weekend. The event, celebrating its 16th birthday this year, encourages people to count various bird species in their neck of the woods — including those feathered friends visiting your backyard bird feeder.
On Saturday, about 60 people toured Santa Fe’s Randall Davey Audubon Center and Sanctuary to take part in the count. By 1 p.m., participants had reported spotting 24 dark-eyed juncos, 20 pine siskins, 12 western bluebirds, 11 black-billed magpies, and 13 house finches — and that’s just the top five species recorded there Saturday.
Last year, some 70 species were recorded in the Santa Fe region during the Great Backyard Bird Count, while close to 200 species were recorded statewide during the event. Bird-watchers in Canada and the United States generated more than 104,000 reporting checklists that identified more than 620 species and more than 17 million birds last year.
This year, the event went worldwide for the first time. “It’s exciting,” said Dana Vackar Strang, the center’s education director, on Saturday. “It will provide a global snapshot of our bird population.” The data can be used to help naturists and scientists track bird populations prior to migration and nesting locales, as well as population changes, she said.
All you need is a pair of binoculars, passion, and patience. “Birds move a lot,” she said. “The more you bird-watch, the more familiar you get with the birds in your areas.”
At the Randall Davey center, located at the top of Upper Canyon Road, at least a half-dozen species were being seen just outside the center’s main administrative building by 10 a.m. Saturday. Cassin’s finch, named after the late ornithologist John Cassin, pleased everyone with its red head.
The white-breasted nuthatch showed up and amused spectators by its ability to walk up and down a tree trunk, much like a woodpecker. According to bird-walk guide Suzanne Fahey, the white-breasted nuthatch has an extra-long back claw that is particularly helpful when it comes to getting into crevices as it moves both up and down the tree, which most other birds can not do. “It can get food by walking down or up the trunk of a tree or branch, unlike woodpeckers, which can only move up the tree,” she said.
The scrub jay loves inhabiting areas where piñon and juniper trees grow, whereas the piñon jay specializes in opening pine cones and eating piñon nuts. A trio of scrub jays showed up around 11 a.m. at a Randall Davey feeder, chasing off some smaller birds that don’t cotton to their larger feathered cousin. Fahey guessed that the trio comprised a mom, dad and offspring. She said scrub jays have to be two or three years old before they can mate, so sometimes the fledglings will stick around its parents to help feed the next brood, among other chores.
“That’s also true of ravens, magpies, and other corvids,” she said.
House finches, pine siskins, and black-capped chickadees (named after the sound they emit, and not W.C. Fields, who used to always say, “My little chickadee!”) all fluttered about the trees at Randall Davey on Saturday, too.
Bird-watchers Becky Gould and Pat Assimakis were on hand to point them out and make notes. “Birds are so fascinating, so individual,” Assimakis said, adding, “I want to be a cedar waxwing when I grow up!” The latter is a classy looking bird with brightly colored wings and tail feathers and a crest on its head.
Fahey said you can often spot waxwings in the trees around the Roundhouse downtown. “They’re very political,” she said.
Fahey, who called herself a “bird nerd,” said her mother loved birds and in turn got her daughter hooked on them. She recalled seeing the Alfred Hitchcock 1963 thriller The Birds and not liking it: “I love birds but I don’t want them on me,” she said with a laugh.
As bird-watchers gathered around her to note and record various birds in the trees, Fahey recited a litany of bird facts. A lot of birds settle permanently in Northern New Mexico’s “central flyway” while others are passing through during migratory patterns in the spring and fall.
Is it true birds fly south for the winter? Well, the sandhill crane, she said, mostly nests in Northern Idaho but heads for Southern New Mexico come winter. She said flocks of them are probably heading back to Idaho now. “Some go as far north as Alaska,” she said.
As for the gentle hummingbird, which graces many a Santa Fe sugar feeder in the spring, they are probably enjoying winter in Costa Rica and Mexico now. But they’ll fly north to Santa Fe by early April, she said.
Fahey said a lot of people think birds get disappointed or mad when people leave town for a while and don’t keep their feeders full. Not true, she said: “Most birds only get 10 percent of what they need to eat from feeders. They don’t miss you as much as you think. Do not worry if your feeder goes empty while you are away. They’ll be back.”
How do birds feel when such furry intruders as chipmunks show up to share the bounty from a bird feeder? “They get along,” Fahey noted. “Better than we do.”
The Randall Davey Center, named after the late New Mexico artist, opened about 30 years ago and features about 135 acres dedicated to the preservation of wildlife. The center opens at 8 a.m. most days, and as of this month bird guides take visitors on bird-watching walking tours at 8 a.m. every Saturday.
If you wish to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count, which started Friday and continues through Monday, visit www.birdcount.org for directions and help.
Contact Robert Nott at 986-3021 or firstname.lastname@example.org.