Hermosillo birders hope Christmas Bird Count will add numbers to their ranks
“Pschhh, pschhh, pschhh, pschhh.”
Carlos González stands under a large tree making what he says is a bird alarm call.
“It’s an alarm sound for the birds, so they’ll come out to see, ‘Oh, what’s that? What’s that?’” the biologist said.
It draws them out from the cover of the leaves so he can identify and count them.
González is leading some dozen volunteers — out before the sun on a cold December morning, hands tucked into pockets and breath steaming — in a Christmas Bird Count.
“The Christmas Bird Counts started in 1900. They have more than 100 years doing the counts,” he said. “In fact, this is the 123rd year.”
The annual winter census began as an alternative to a holiday hunting tradition known as the Christmas “Side Hunt,” according to the National Audubon Society.
In the years since it’s spread across the Americas, with groups everywhere from Canada to Barbados to Brazil. Each covers a 15-mile diameter circle, counting as many bird species and individuals as possible in one day between December 14th to January 5th. The winter censuses provides long-term data on the health and status of bird populations across North America, helping inform decisions about how to protect birds and their habitats.
González started the Hermosillo count in 2016, and has gathered a group every year since.
The group divides into teams and heads to various parts of the city in search of as many birds as they can find. González, whose team is taking on some of the city’s parks, kicks off at the University of Sonora. Today, he is particularly on the lookout for a Bendire’s thrasher — a species that is rapidly declining in Arizona, but needs more study south of the border, he says.
While spying no thrashers on campus, his team identified dozens of species: Gila woodpeckers, vermilion flycatchers, yellow-rump and orange-crowned warblers and burrowing owls.
Broadbill hummingbirds flit through eucalyptus trees; white-wing doves sun themselves and a Peregrine falcon perches on a telephone pole.
González says the benefit of bird watching is that you can do it anywhere.
Despite being a large city in the middle of the desert, Hermosillo is host to some 200 bird species — one of many reasons why it’s important to create and maintain green spaces in the sprawling city, he says.
“Parks, the university campus, these places with trees are so important, because these are the places that attract birds,” he said. “Green spaces are important for everything: for fauna, for vegetation, the city looks better, people are more relaxed — and we have fewer and fewer of those spaces.”
Then at the group’s next stop, he said: “It’s not just that there are trees in the city, it’s having trees that provide ecological services.”
Parque Madero, with its fountain and walking paths, is a green island in a sea of asphalt and concrete. But it doesn’t attract a diversity of birds, González says, because few of the plants are native species.
Still, the crew manage one rare find: A violet-crowned hummingbird.
Native shrubs and cactus abound at their next stop, as do cactus wrens, lark sparrows, pyrrhuloxia, ash-throated flycatchers. Perhaps even the sought after Bendire’s thrasher.
“Trasher! Bendire’s thrasher!” González calls out to his team.
They all lift their binoculars, but from this distance they can’t be sure.
González plays a recording of the bird's song to draw the thrasher closer.
Finally, they agree — they got their thrasher.
“That’s the one we’ve been looking for,” said Diana Figueroa, watching it fly to a nearby cactus to perch.
Bird watchers wanted
The annual winter census is an important source of data for researchers and conservationists. It’s also a way to get more people looking at birds, Figueroa says.
A doctoral student studying regional development, Figueroa says Sonora attracts many tourist birders - making it an important, though underdeveloped, economic sector, she says. But few locals participate. Those who do are largely biologists and ecologists.
González and others want to change that. And they hope events like the Christmas Bird Count can help.
“It’s an easy way to take part in science,” said González. “Plus it’s a great way to meet people, to get exercise, to have fun.”
Figueroa says one of the biggest benefits is that newbies are teamed up with experts who can help them figure out where to look and what they are seeing.
When she started out, she said, “I just saw birds, but I couldn’t tell them apart.”
And learning more about birds — their unique plumage, behaviors and habitats — increases people’s interest in protecting them, she says.
“I remember when I first looked through binoculars and could see all these details — the colors and the patterns,” she said. “It really captured my attention.”
“It’s like collecting Pokémon,” adds Selene Terán. “It’s really exciting — or at least it is for me — when you spot a new bird. It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, look at it! It’s so beautiful!’”
Lagunas de quiroga
Terán, an ecologist, has been birdwatching for a few years now, and she says nothing beats seeing a new species for the first time.
Today, she added several lifers, or birds she’s never identified before: a lazuli bunting; Baltimore oriole, a few ducks.
It’s late afternoon and the entire group has reunited at the Lagunas de Quiroga — formerly part of the Sonoran River delta and now just scattered ponds filled with runoff from that city’s water treatment plant.
Suddenly, Terán gasps.
“Look. On this side!” she said, alerting her companions to a vermillion flycatcher near the water’s edge.
In a couple of hours, the birders have identified more than 70 species of ducks, herons, coots and raptors. Over the course of the day, they spotted 121 species.
“It’s a miracle that they arrive here,” saidEduardo Gómez, a long-time recreational birdwatcher, his expertise has landed him jobs with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and now Mexico’s national parks service equivalent, CONANP.
Of nearly 600 bird species found in the state, he says some 400 are migratory birds that come from Canada and the United States.
Having wings, Gómez says, birds don’t know borders. That means it’s important not only to study birds on both sides of the border to understand how they are doing and how to protect them, but that their wellbeing is tied to the conservation of their habitats throughout their range and their ability to move freely from one place to the next.
In Mexico, data collection on most bird species is still in its early stages, he said: “We’re just barely taking the first steps. There is still a lot of learning to do.”
But he believes it's critical to begin implementing conservation strategies in Hermosillo now, especially as climate change and growing development are increasingly impacting bird populations.
“If we don’t act, it could be something we regret all our lives,” he said. “And those who are in positions of power need to know the importance and potential of places like this.”
With a little cleaning up, he says, the lagoons could not only serve as habitat for migratory birds but provide recreation and a tourist attraction.
Instead, it’s full of trash and being eaten up by developments.
“It’s the most important site we have in the city,” said González. “And they’re filling it in more all the time.”
Some of the ponds where the birders had previously spotted interesting species are already gone.
The sun is starting to set as the group heads to leave.
Then someone spots another bird.
“There it is! There it is!”
“That’s a rare one."
“Classic,” says González with a chuckle. “Something you realize when you start spending time with birders, you can never get anywhere because they’re always going, ‘Look, how beautiful."”
There’s always another bird to find.