Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Christmas Bird Count Explained: The Messiah Sing-along of Birding

Guest post by Rich Hoyer
Tucson Valley Count Coordinator

If you’ve heard and read about the Christmas Bird Count but not done one, you may have the wrong impression of what it is all about. Almost any official description brags of its wide scope, long history, and important scientific value. It’s described as “oldest and most important citizen science poject,” among others. I’m convinced that this creates for many an image of a bunch of serious folk doing something important but tedious, requiring a high level of skill. I have a different take on this annual event: I declare it not science or a data-gathering exercise, but rather the most fun social birding event all year. I think of it as the Messiah sing-along of birding, where even the most rank beginners are welcome and are certain to have a good time.

Chestnut-sided Warbler is one of the rare eastern warblers that sometimes is found on the Tucson Valley CBC.

If you’re totally new to the idea of the Christmas Bird Count, or CBC, here’s my quick synopsis: On one day from December 14 to January 5 each year, a bunch of people spread out and go birding in a 15-mile diameter circle. They keep track of every bird they see, then get together in the evening to tally up the species count and share their day’s experiences. Why do people do this? What is so special about a CBC that keeps people coming back year after year, in any kind of weather? Because it’s great fun! Birding is fun any day of the year but is even more fun in a group effort when your participation becomes part of something bigger. The meeting at the end of the day is at least half of the fun, and some have said about the CBC “it’s all about the food.”

White-winged Dove is one of the scarce winter birds in Tucson that goes unnoticed until dozens of birders scour the neighborhoods all on the same day.

There are hundreds of these 15-mile diameter circles across the North American continent, extending to Hawaii and even south through the Caribbean and Central and South America. In fact, last year there were 2248 of these circles. Each one is defined by the latitude and longitude of its center and was created by a CBC junkie and approved by the National Audubon Society, which maintains the giant database of records dating back over a hundred years. There are a few requirements that have to be met before a circle is founded, but even you can create a CBC circle in your area if there isn’t one already. (Incidentally, the current Tucson Valley circle was created by Edward Chalif in 1971.)

The Tucson Valley CBC has lots of urban habitats that birders cover, but a chunk of the gorgeous, largely inaccessible Santa Catalina Mountains fills the NE part of the circle.

After the day’s birding is the countdown meeting and dinner – either at a restaurant, a private home, or, for a CBC in a larger urban area with lots of participants, a meeting hall. There people warm up from the day out in the winter weather, share their experiences over a great meal, and then participate in the final countdown tally. This is where the compiler reads down the master list of the species and all counters call out “yes” for every one that was seen, remaining quiet for those species missed. Then if any unexpected species were found, each group gets a chance to share their fun finds, and we find out how many species were recorded by all teams during the day.

This is where the Messiah sing-along analogy comes in. Just as you can spend any day birding in the field on your own or with a small group of friends, you could hum a tune while doing dishes or get together once a week to sing 4-part English madrigals. Both are gratifying in their own way, and you don’t need to be an expert to enjoy either. But in the grand sing-along, you sing or hum an otherwise meaningless harmony (or a melody that would be horrible if I just tried to sing it on my own), and you do it with 60 or 100 others also doing their little part. The end result is marvelous and bigger than the mere sum of its parts. On a CBC, you get a huge number of people birding in places they would never think to cover on their own, and the end result is an amazing variety of species and unexpected rarities that you could never find on your own in a single day. Later, when the results from all CBC's are in, we can compare how many species we got with others in the state or rate how well did with species for which we often get the high count (Tucson Valley usually leads the nation with Mourning Doves, Cooper’s Hawks, Vermilion Flycatchers, and Verdins, among others). I have a hunch that this year we’ll certainly lead the state with the most number of participants. 

Birders on the Santa Cruz River have their work cut out for them, sorting through and counting flocks that could contain White-crowned Sparrow and Lark Bunting, as in this bush.

On top of all that, the birds we tallied do become part of the international CBC database which – despite our being amateur and hobby birders and participating just for the fun – has scientific and conservation value. We keep track of how many people were birding for how many miles and hours, and with this done every year, species that are relatively numerous and easy to observe reveal trends in their populations that can be tied into more rigorous scientific surveys. So when you participate on a Christmas Bird Count, do it for the fun and the chance to participate in an event that’s bigger than the sum of its parts. You can even hum Handel’s Messiah while your at it.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The quest for a better tree

By Jonathan Horst 

A major limitation to the long-term success of desert restoration work is the need to establish trees that can grow without irrigation.  Naturally growing mesquite trees develop a long tap root as small seedlings that will, ideally, eventually find its way down near to the water table.  If the tap root is damaged or its downward growth is impeded the tree will not be able to adequately harvest deep water – a requirement for long-term survival of large mesquite trees in the desert.  Most trees purchased in greenhouses have a tap root that has circled the pot many times and will not be able to regain its normal downward growth trajectory in a sufficient fashion.  These trees therefore need either irrigation or supplemental water, in the form of harvested rainwater or roadside runoff, in the drier months in order to survive—easy enough to provide in town but not practical in the open desert.  Tucson Audubon attempts to limit the irrigation volume on restoration sites and to have plants fully established to survive without irrigation after two years. Even though trees are planted in basins utilizing berms to capture any additional water possible, the average nursery mesquite is likely doomed to a smaller size and shortened lifespan when used in a desert restoration setting compared to trees growing naturally from seed.

The Restoration Crew at Tucson Audubon has decided to start a trial method to grow seedlings that will be able to be planted with next-to-zero taproot disturbance using biodegradable pots made from gift wrapping-paper tubes that can be directly installed in the soil and will biodegrade rapidly.  This will be part of a larger experiment to compare growth and long-term survival rates of trees grown and transplanted using a variety of established and novel techniques. We expect that the minimal disturbance to natural tap root development utilizing the gift-wrap tube pots will allow faster overall growth rates, increased survival, and greater overall tree size once plants are taken off irrigation than standard nursery trees. Whether they can outperform trees grown from seed on site is another question!

Interesting facts about mesquites
  • By the time a mesquite seedling is 3” tall and has its first pair of true leaves, the tap root is already over a foot long – deeper than a 1 gallon nursery pot.
  • Mesquite trees have the deepest roots known, one live root measured over 160 feet deep. Arizona Sonora Desert Museum
  • Mesquite seeds need to be scarified (scratched up) before they will sprout. This can be accomplished by rolling along in a flood, repeated freezing and thawing, being eaten by cattle or deer, or being driven over by car tires along the road.
  • Mesquite trees increase the fertility of the soil around them. Nitrogen is a major nutrient that plants need. However, they can’t utilize the nitrogen in the air. Mesquites, and other plants in the bean family, have bacteria in their roots which convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form usable to plants.

Monday, November 19, 2012

November's Volunteer Shout-Out


A look at two of the Tucson Audubon Nature Shop's most long-time, beloved volunteers

by Kara Kaczmarzyk


Lorel Picciurro and Kathy Olmstead first met years ago in a hiking club. Since then, the two ladies have traveled the world together.

Lorel & Kathy (top) with Laura LePere at the Tucson Bird & Wildlife Festival

Lorel Picciurro has volunteered in the Tucson Audubon Nature Shop since at least 2005. A Hollywood, CA native, Lorel always seems to have a calm yet positive attitude. Each quarter, Lorel brings copies of the Vermilion Flycatcher to the main library, ensuring they get distributed to readers in all 27 branches. In addition, she maintains all of the bird feeders in the front yard of the nature shop, for the enjoyment of all Nature Shop visitors, as well as those who would like to test out a new pair of binoculars on some local birds. Further, she is coordinating the February Sandhill Crane member trip. Lorel is a retired high school teacher. I discovered that Lorel plays a soprano recorder, and she enjoys making stained glass stepping stones and baking.

Kathy Olmstead has volunteered in the Tucson Audubon nature shop longer than any other volunteer. When new shop volunteer Chris Bjorgaard was preparing to start training in the shop, he (wisely) chose to shadow Kathy for that just reason. It is true, Kathy is a wealth of knowledge on all things shop, and bird, related. Kathy too is a former teacher. She joined Tucson Audubon in 1970 and is a lifetime member. As Operations and Retail Coordinator Kelly DiGiacomo points out, Kathy knows everyone in the birding community; she is kind of a celebrity.

Both ladies are enthusiastic volunteers at offsite events, from the Tucson Botanical Garden’s Flock Party to the Tucson Bird & Wildlife Festival and all in between. They do Birdathon together. They are also both docents at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. We all enjoy when they return from travels and we get to hear of their many adventures. Kathy and Lorel truly are a dynamic duo, as described by any staff person I’ve asked.

Image credits: Mallard by madmcmojo, Lorel & Kathy by Becky Aparicio

November's Volunteer Shout-Out


A look at two of the Tucson Audubon Nature Shop's most long-time, beloved volunteers

by Kara Kaczmarzyk



Lorel Picciurro and Kathy Olmstead first met years ago in a hiking club. Since then, the two ladies have traveled the world together.

Lorel & Kathy (top) with Laura LePere at the Tucson Bird & Wildlife Festival

Lorel Picciurro has volunteered in the Tucson Audubon Nature Shop since at least 2005. A Hollywood, CA native, Lorel always seems to have a calm yet positive attitude. Each quarter, Lorel brings copies of the Vermilion Flycatcher to the main library, ensuring they get distributed to readers in all 27 branches. In addition, she maintains all of the bird feeders in the front yard of the nature shop, for the enjoyment of all Nature Shop visitors, as well as those who would like to test out a new pair of binoculars on some local birds. Further, she is coordinating the February Sandhill Crane member trip. Lorel is a retired high school teacher. I discovered that Lorel plays a soprano recorder, and she enjoys making stained glass stepping stones and baking.

Kathy Olmstead has volunteered in the Tucson Audubon nature shop longer than any other volunteer. When new shop volunteer Chris Bjorgaard was preparing to start training in the shop, he (wisely) chose to shadow Kathy for that just reason. It is true, Kathy is a wealth of knowledge on all things shop, and bird, related. Kathy too is a former teacher. She joined Tucson Audubon in 1970 and is a lifetime member. As Operations and Retail Coordinator Kelly DiGiacomo points out, Kathy knows everyone in the birding community; she is kind of a celebrity.

Both ladies are enthusiastic volunteers at offsite events, from the Tucson Botanical Garden’s Flock Party to the Tucson Bird & Wildlife Festival and all in between. They do Birdathon together. They are also both docents at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. We all enjoy when they return from travels and we get to hear of their many adventures. Kathy and Lorel truly are a dynamic duo, as described by any staff person I’ve asked.

Image credits: Mallard by madmcmojo, Lorel & Kathy by Becky Aparicio

Monday, November 5, 2012

Highlights of Audubon’s 112th Christmas Bird Count

Guest post by Bob Bowers
The Northern Cardinal, One of the Easier
CBC Birds to Spot (photos Bob Bowers)
Volume 66 of American Birds, which details results of the National Audubon Society’s 112th annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC), has just been published.  This will be the last hard copy version of the magazine, a data-rich compilation of statistics gathered by tens of thousands of citizen-scientists within a 23-day period each winter.  The hard copy magazine will be replaced by an online version, reducing production costs and benefitting participants, members and researchers simultaneously.  Beginning with the upcoming 113th CBC, which runs from December 14, 2012 through January 5, 2013, the five-dollar participation fee will be waived.  Additionally, the society announced that annual count results will be posted online as they are completed, which will provide a lot of information much earlier than the typical October publication.  This will benefit researchers and others who use the results, and the society hopes that elimination of the participation fee will add more volunteers and expand the counting areas, further enriching the data.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee (Bob Bowers)
The annual results are always fascinating, valuable and sometimes surprising, and those just published are no exception.  Each of the past few years has shown record participation, record counts and expanding surveys, and the 2011-2012 results once more raises the bar.  As Geoffrey LeBaron, the CBC Director reports, the 112th count was notable for a number of reasons, and remarkable in its results.  As seems to be the case everywhere lately, weather was an important factor, with one of the least wintry counts on record.  While snow itself was less of an issue, pre-count excitement built as high numbers of Snowy Owls began appearing much farther south than usual.  Indeed, 546 Snowy Owls were reported in a broad swath of southern Canadian provinces and U.S. states, including nine each in two separate South Dakota circles.  In the opinion of Sebastian Patti, who summarized that area’s data, enough to qualify each as a ‘Parliament’, the term used for an assemblage of owls.

Male Phainopepla, a Common CBC find in Arizona (Bob Bowers)
Whether influenced by mild winter weather, increased participant involvement or the vagaries of bird behavior, the bottom line results continue to impress.  The 112th CBC consisted of 2,248 count circles in the U.S., Canada, Latin America, the Caribbean and several Pacific islands.  That’s a jump of 88 circles from the prior year’s record, and includes new additions in Columbia, Cuba, Jamaica and Mexico, as well as the U.S. and Canada.  These circles were counted by a record 63,227 observers, who tallied nearly 65 million birds and 2,298 species, almost a fourth of the world’s total species.  As usual, Texas and California counts dominated the list of most species found north of Mexico.  Matagorda County-Mad Island Marsh in Texas repeated its top ranking with 244 species, and the top 29 North American circles were all in Texas and California.  Of Arizona’s 33 count circles, 2 qualified for the list of 150 species or more:   Phoenix-Tres Rios, number 73 with 156 species, and Patagonia with 150.

These numbers are a far cry from the first Christmas Bird Count in 1900.  As the 19th century drew to a close, bird populations were unprotected and many threatened.  Unbelievably, there was an annual event called ‘the Side Hunt’, where participants chose sides and competed to see which group could shoot and kill the most birds.  Frank Chapman, an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History, was appalled by this slaughter and decided to do something about it.  Chapman came up with the idea to count birds rather than kill them, and he recruited 27 observers in 25 locations from California to Ontario to tally birds that Christmas.  Ninety species were recorded, and this activity led to founding of the National Audubon Society five years later.  Fortunately, the Side Hunt faded away as interest in conservation and the Christmas Bird Count grew to today’s remarkable level.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Bob Bowers)
The annual count generates invaluable data used by ornithologists, researchers and decision-makers around the world, and has contributed to legislation and conservation measures that protect birds everywhere.  You don’t have to be a scientist to participate, nor do you have to be an expert birder.  Each 15-mile diameter count circle is led by an experienced compiler/coordinator, and volunteers are welcomed with enthusiasm.  Detailed information describing how to volunteer and participate in this year’s count can be found on the National Audubon Society’s web site beginning in mid-November or Tucson Audubon's site for local details.  You don’t have to be a member, but I would encourage you to join both the national organization and your closest local affiliate.  Signing on to a count this holiday season as a citizen-scientist is an easy way to make a material contribution to birds.  It’s also a great way to meet interesting people with similar interests, have a fun day and learn something new.  Beginning this year, it’s also free.

Additional Info: 
Arizona CBC details - tucsonaudubon.org/cbc
Tucson Valley Count - Dec. 16 - Rich Hoyer 520-325-5310 birdernaturalist@me.com
Atascosa Highlands 2011 count report - Tucson Audubon Blog