A hardy band of 18 volunteers counted a record 5,083 birds of 85 different species just north of Payson this year as part of the National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count.
Conducted nationally since 1900, the bird count has since 1900 provided invaluable data on the health of bird populations nationally — and played a key role in research that has documented an alarming decline in the number of diversity of songbirds throughout North America.
Local birders conducted their ninth annual count on Dec. 29. Under clear skies, the 18 participants headed out to spend the day identifying and counting all the birds they saw or heard in and around Payson.
The volunteers tallied all the birds they saw in a 24-hour period in a designated circle 15 miles in diameter a little northwest of Payson. It runs north to the Control Road and Whispering Pines, east just past Diamond Point Shadows, south to just below Oxbow Hill, and west to Tonto Natural Bridge. The national project included more than 2,000 counts held between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. View the results on the Audubon Web site (http://www.audubon.org/bird/cbc/).
Each year’s findings are unique due to the overlapping movements of birds occurring at this time, resembling a game of ecological musical chairs. The weather influences the movement of birds moving south for the winter. Moreover, local species like Anna’s hummingbirds and cardinals move through the area down into the lower and warmer basins below Payson. In addition, some species move up from lower areas during periods of nice weather. Count day is when the music stops and we end up with a different mix of birds each year. During the nine years, a total of 127 species have been observed. Of those, about 60 show up some years but not others.
This year the spotters recorded many waterfowl on the ponds and lakes in Payson, at Chaparral Pines and around Star Valley, including Canada geese, American wigeons, mallards, northern shovelers, and American coots were abundant. The volunteers also saw many plant-seed-eaters, such as dark-eyed juncos and white-crowned sparrows. The most widespread species inhabit chaparral and juniper woodlands, including Western scrub-jay, bushtit, juniper titmouse, Bewick’s wren, and spotted towhee.
Berry-eaters, such as Western bluebirds, robins and solitaires, were less common than last year when record numbers showed up to take advantage of a bumper juniper berry crop. Noisy great-tailed grackles dominate the parking lots of our shopping centers.
Some raptors made a good showing. The spotters saw seven bald and four golden eagles. Other birds of prey included sharp-shinned hawk, red-tailed hawk, American kestrel and merlin.
Some of the rarer finds included greater white-fronted goose, northern pintail, pied-billed grebe, Wilson’s snipe and olive warbler. A few desert species lingered, including verdin, cactus wren, curve-billed and crissal thrashers, phainopepla and canyon towhee.
Volunteers included Kathe Anderson, Barbara Brenke, Diane Brown, Tom Conlin, Gregg Dunn, Ellen Hairston, Dave Hallock, Helen Hassemer, Rick Heffernon, Gordon Karre, Grace Knowles, Lois Lorenz, Beverly Malmberg, Amy Madara-Yagla, Natalie Madara-Yagla, Peggy Newman, Sue Schuett and Joanne Travis.