Tuesday, July 19, 2016

July Bird Count at Tohono Chul Park

For the last few years I’ve been privileged to take part in official Audubon-sponsored bird counts at Tohono Chul Park. The purpose of the annual Tucson Bird Count (TBC), which takes place each spring, is to document what birds occur on each of over 800 points throughout the Tucson Valley and Saguaro National Parks East and West. Additional, quarterly counts take place in several good birding areas, including Tohono Chul. According to Jennie McFarland, TBC Coordinator, the purpose of the count is not only to learn more about our ever-changing bird population, but to determine how Tucson residents can better share their space with native birds.

At Tohono Chul, the counts are led by a very experienced birder, Jim Hayes, who is retired from the National Science Foundation. At Jim’s invitation, he is joined by three or four Tohono Chul docents who have varying degrees of birding experience.
We begin the count in the eastern parking lot around 5:15 just before the sun comes up, to see/hear owls or other night birds, and to be able to more clearly hear the first dawn songs. Each birding area has six official points, where the group stops and records all birds positively identified. The rules require that the group leader must personally see or hear the birds at the official point. The point counts last five minutes each. Birds seen and heard on the way from one point to another are also recorded (by number and sex, if known). Anything unusual, such as a bird actively building a nest or a rattlesnake, is also noted. The photos in this post are from the midsummer bird count at Tohono Chul, on July 10, 2016.

Point 1.  This point is at the western end of the Park, at the bottom of the Saguaro Discovery Trail. It's a good area for seeing desert birds as well as other wildlife in the wash west of the trail. 

We saw and/or heard a number of typical birds at this point, including: brown-crested flycatcher, cactus wren, Gila woodpecker, house finch, pyrrhuloxia, verdin,  and white-winged dove. 
 On the way to the next counting point we saw a nesting purple martin, in the same saguaro it had used the previous year. (It was sticking its head out of the nest hole, just like the bird in the above photo.) These birds are new to Tohono Chul, having first appeared last year. We knew they were likely to be on or near "their" saguaro, because they'd been seen recently by docents. But we could not note the species in the official point count because the bird couldn’t be seen from the official point, so it was placed on the "supplemental" list. When I asked about the strictness of the rules, I was told that they help make certain that the counts are consistent from year to year.

Point 2.  We picked up a supplemental Lesser goldfinch on the way out of front entrance and to the next official point, in the front parking lot. Sometimes that is where we start the count, and we've been there in the cold dark of a winter morning, where the early birds are already vocalizing. At this point we picked up a few more species (in addition to several we already had), including bronzed cowbird, mourning dove, Abert's towhee, and Bell's vireo, as well as supplemental phainopepla, en route to the next point. When you're on a bird count, you try to identify every bird you see, including distant wire birds, such as this pair of doves:
 We now headed to the next two official points on northeast side of the Park.  On the way we passed a pile of eucalyptus logs, all that remain of the giant tree that shaded the front of the Park for more than forty years, serving as a home to numerous birds, including several Cooper's hawks.
 As we approached the third official counting point, on the Desert View Trail, the sun was just peeking over the Catalina Mountains. 
Points 3 and 4. After  five minutes at the third stop, it was already starting to get hot, so we hurried over to the next point, on the other side of the loop trail, where we were protected by shade, but it was also a bit harder to see birds. 
Points 5 and 6.  We returned to the interior of the Park for the last two official counting points. There were few new species by this time, since it was already too hot for most of the birds (the hummers were still busy drinking nectar--we saw three species overall: Costa's, Anna's, and my favorites, broadbills). We saw more birds than I have mentioned in this report, but I will not enumerate them all except to say that there were approximately 25 species. There was plenty to see besides birds. Tohono Chul is known for its outdoor art, and we saw some new metal sculptures near the fifth point, in the Sundial Plaza:
Heading to our final stop, in the shady Riparian area, we were all hot and tired. On the way we were rewarded with the sight of a supplemental Western diamondback, which didn't move a muscle as the five of us trooped by.
A bush of beautiful morning glories,

A colorful leaf-cutter ant trail,
And the beautiful Texas ranger the ants were dismantling.
We finished the bird count around eight AM, hot and sweaty but satisfied. It is so exhilarating to be out in the desert, even on a hot July day, before dawn. I even love doing bird counts in the winter. Because Jim and usually one or two of the other birders are so experienced, I always learn a lot (for example, this time I learned that the brown-crested flycatcher is most likely to sing his complete, complex song at dawn). I always pick up tips for when I lead my own bird walks at Tohono Chul or the Desert Museum. No matter how many species we "get," there is always the pleasure of seeing and hearing the birds, being with like-minded people on an important purpose, and, at least for the Tohono Chul walk, seeing some of the changes in the ever-changing venue.

For more information on the Tucson Bird Count, as well as ways you can attract birds to your yard, visit the Tucson Audubon Society website.