Audubon to expand famous Christmas bird count
The Audubon Christmas Bird Count, the longest-running citizen science wildlife survey in the world, will run from Dec. 14 through Jan. 5, 2013, throughout North America, including 35 locations in New Mexico alone. More than 60,000 volunteers nationwide are expected to brave the cold this year to add a new layer of data that will help shape conservation decisions in years to come.
This year, the Christmas Bird Count will undergo several significant changes. Fees to participate in the count will be dropped to encourage greater participation. The annual published report "American Birds" will go digital in 2013, saving more trees for the birds. Christmas Bird Count information will also be available online in Spanish for the first time.
"We encourage birders of all ages and abilities to participate in this year's CBC," said Robert Templeton, who leads a scheduling effort for New Mexico's count. "Each counting group is led by one or more experts capable of identifying, by sight and sound, the birds in their area, so it's a great learning opportunity for less experienced birders as well."
Each CBC group counts in a specified area, sometimes driving, sometimes walking. Every bird seen or heard is identified and counted. At the end of the day, each group's count is collected and the data sent electronically to the National Audubon Society.
Audubon's CBC has been called a "model" for citizen science by the journal Nature and is the leading source of long-term bird population data in the Americas.
"The power of citizen science is demonstrated nowhere better than in the Audubon Christmas Bird Count," Carol Beidleman, Audubon New Mexico's director of bird conservation, said. "Birds serve as early indicators of environmental threats, and data from the CBC has provided invaluable information to policy makers in Congress as well as the Department of the Interior, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service."
After a year of devastating weather events, including severe droughts that have all but dried up western rivers like the Rio Grande and super storms like Hurricane Sandy, the topic of climate change has once again been brought to the forefront. Scientists rely on the trend data from the CBC to better understand how birds and the environment are faring in the face of climate change.
In a NASA-funded study published in Global Change Biology, data revealed that migratory bird species can experience population losses up to 13 percent during extreme droughts.
"Dry years in northern New Mexico since 1996 — especially 2000, 2002, 2003, 2011 and 2012 — have adversely impacted wildlife populations in many ways by decreasing food supplies, water and habitat," Stephen Fettig, wildlife biologist with the National Park Service, explained. "Drought influences habitat quality and food availability for a whole suite of insectivorous and seeding-eating birds. Such drought-induced changes can have detrimental effects on nest success, chick survival and overall population numbers for birds.
"While good breeding seasons are often mixed among poor breeding seasons, making short-term bird population trends difficult to interpret, long-term trends from CBCs give us a much clearer understanding of the overall health of many of our bird species."
In 2009 Audubon scientists analyzed 40 years of CBC data and found powerful evidence that climate change is having a serious impact on natural systems. Audubon documented that a northward expansion of wintering range was detected among species of every type, including more than 70 percent of forest and feeder birds.
Bernard Foy, longtime Audubon New Mexico volunteer and leader of the CBC circle in Española for the past 21 years, recently published a paper in the New Mexico Ornithological Society Bulletin. "Evidence for Decline in Wintering Dark-eyed Junco (Junco Hyemalis) in New Mexico" analyzed 50 years of New Mexico CBC data to assess long-term trends in wintering populations of the birds. Foy's analysis showed that juncos are declining as a wintering species in New Mexico with some count circles showing steep declines; Santa Fe's CBC circle has lost approximately 75 percent of the wintering birds in the last six decades.
Besides the dark-eyed junco, CBC results have shown many birds that winter in the state are declining in numbers, and analysis shows that their range is retracting north. In addition, New Mexico now sees birds that used to be quite rare in winter much more frequently as birds move northward from the south. For instance, 20 years ago it was almost unheard of to see the common yellowthroat wintering in New Mexico, but now these birds winter regularly in Las Cruces and sometimes up the Rio Grande corridor toward Albuquerque.
"Just how bad is the drought and how much is climate change really affecting sensitive bird species? Only time will tell," said Christopher Rustay, Albuquerque resident and Clayton CBC leader. "But we need our citizen scientists to count in both good years and bad to help tell the story."
To find a count nearby, view New Mexico's CBC schedule on the Internet at http://nm.audubon.org/nm-christmas-bird-count.