by Dave Hallock, Special to the Roundup
The count is in — the Payson Christmas Bird Count, that is. Since 1900, the National Audubon Society has conducted bird counts throughout North America. Local birding enthusiasts conducted their 10th annual count on Jan. 4. About 18 participants headed out into the field with spring-like weather, which contributed to 95 species being observed, up 10 from last year. Counters tallied 4,963 birds, slightly lower than last year.
The count is a census of the birds found during a 24-hour period in a designated circle 15 miles in diameter. The Payson count circle is centered a little northwest of town. 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 over 2,000 counts held between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. Full results of the Payson count can be viewed on the Audubon Web site (http://birds. audubon.org/christmas-bird-count/).
Scientists have published 200 peer-reviewed research papers based on the national bird census conducted every year for 112 years by volunteers. Among other things, the Christmas Bird Count has documented an alarming decline in songbirds throughout North America. Researchers suspect that changes in the tropical wintering grounds for these colorful species may account for much of the decline. Arizona is an especially critical site for the census since most of the songbirds that summer throughout North America migrate through Arizona.
The species tally differs every year. In some respects it is similar to the game “musical chairs,” with different species moving through the area each year. First is a movement of birds coming south for the winter often influenced by the severity of weather. Next, local species shift positions, such as Anna’s hummingbirds and cardinals, moving down into the lower and warmer basins below Payson. Other species may move up from those basins during periods of nice weather. Count day is when the music stops and we end up with a slightly different mix of birds each year. Over the past decade, a total of 130 species have been observed. A shifting group of 60 species shows up in some years, but not others.
This year we had high numbers of berry-eating birds, including American robins, Western bluebirds, mountain bluebirds, Townsend solitaires, spotted towhees, and phainopeplas. They were attracted to the abundant berry crop on oneseed junipers, particularly on the lower slopes of the count area below Oxbow Estates and along the road to Doll Baby.
Watchers also recorded above-average numbers for northern flickers, Say’s phoebes, Steller’s jays, American crows and mountain chickadees.
However, the count revealed lower-than-normal totals for Canada goose, mallard, American wigeon, Gambel’s quail, bushtit and most sparrows.
Some raptors made a good showing, including five bald and two golden eagles. Other birds-of-prey included Cooper’s hawk, red-tailed hawk, American kestrel and merlin.
Some of the rarer finds included northern saw-whet owl, Cassin’s kingbird, and Eastern bluebird. Cassin’s kingbird is common in the Payson area during the summer and generally winters in Mexico and farther south. But winter sightings in Arizona have been on the increase in recent years. Due to the stretch of mild weather preceding the count, higher than normal numbers of wintering desert birds made their way up into the count area, including Say’s phoebe, verdin, cactus wren, sage and crissal thrashers, canyon and Abert’s towhees and rufous-crowned sparrows.
Participants in the count were Kathe Anderson, Diane Brown, Tom Conlin, Gregg Dunn, Dave Hallock, Helen Hassemer, Rick Heffernon, Brian Ison, Gordon Karre, Grace Knowles, Lois Lorenz, Beverly Malmberg, Sue Meyers, Peggy Newman, Sue Schuett, Chip Steele, Diane Steele and Joanne Travis.