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 17th annual count on Jan. 5. It was a cold, but beautiful morning when 14 participants headed out to spend the day identifying and counting all the birds they saw or heard in and around Payson. By the end of the day the participants had seen 83 species and 2,852 birds, fairly average numbers for the count.
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 northeast 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 includes over 2,000 counts held between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. There are over 35 counts held in Arizona, including Camp Verde, Jerome, Sedona, Flagstaff, and Mormon Lake.
The count provides a one-day snapshot of the birds present in the Payson area during the winter. Combined with other counts held nationwide, the results can map the winter ranges of bird species. Over many years, the counts can show if the distribution of a species has changed. A recent assessment of four decades of Christmas Bird Count observations found that almost 60% of the species had significant northward movements of their winter range distribution, some species by several hundred miles, a finding that matches climate change predictions.
Some of the most common species seen this year included American robin, western bluebird, Canada goose, Woodhouse’s scrub-jay, American coot, white-crowned sparrow, and cedar waxwing.
Birds of prey observed included golden eagle, bald eagle, red-tailed hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, and Cooper’s hawk.
Waterfowl were common at Green Valley Park and other ponds in the area, including Canada goose, northern shoveler, American wigeon, canvasback, ring-necked duck, and ruddy duck.
Some harder to find birds found included the greater roadrunner, Williamson’s sapsucker, belted kingfisher, evening grosbeak, and green-tailed towhee.
American robins were by far the most common species this year, close to 600 of them. Over the 17 years of the count, the numbers of robins and western bluebirds have followed the same cycle for high and low numbers, often tied to berry crops on junipers.
Robins, like many of the birds during the current drought, have been abundant around water. They were observed along the East Verde River feeding on the berries of Rocky Mountain juniper (a common juniper in the riparian zone) and on the ground foraging in the leaf litter. A third species that loosely follows the cycles of the robins and bluebirds is cedar waxwing, another berry eater.
Two new species for the count were observed — ash-throated flycatcher and lazuli bunting. Both species are present during the breeding season and the guess is that a few are taking advantage of the mild winter and staying farther north than normal. A total of 149 species have been observed in the Payson area during the 17 winters covered by the count.
Throughout this fall, there have been reports of significantly large die-offs of migratory birds in the Southwest and West. Factors include starvation from the extended drought, some early snowstorms, and the massive fires and smoke plumes that likely caused birds to alter their normal migratory path and expend more energy. Carcasses collected for analysis all showed signs of severe starvation. Some early September snowstorms in New Mexico and Colorado appeared to be the final blow to the energy depleted birds. I observed the die-off in Colorado this September during a local bird count when over a dozen dead birds were found lying on the ground, mostly dark-eyed juncos. Our Payson count of dark-eyed juncos was the third lowest we have observed, under half of what we normally find. Most of our wintering juncos come from the Pacific Northwest and farther north, and could have been impacted by the die-off.
We have also seen several years of low numbers of some of our resident birds, including Bewick’s wren, juniper titmouse, and bushtit, generally fairly common in chaparral and juniper woodlands. Their populations may be succumbing to the extended drought.
Participants in this year’s count were Christina Akins, Kathe Anderson, Diane Brown, Tom Conlin, Dave Hallock, Helen Hassemer, Rick Heffernon, Lois Lorenz, Beverly Malmberg, Sue Mona, Brett Montgomery, Peggy Newman, Chip Steele, and Diane Steele.