Two fledgling birders take a 1,200-mile journey to count Mexican birds
Three large, vividly rust-colored birds chattered and hopped directly above us in the bald cypress.
“Squirrel cuckoos!” Doug hissed from behind his binoculars. “A first for the Yecora count!”
Transfixed by their 15-inch tails splotched with black-and-white eye spots, I murmured, “Boy, birds don’t get any more tropical than that, do they?”
” Nope,” Doug grinned. “They sure don’t!”
My partner Dan and I haul around bird guides and binoculars, and I’ve taken an ornithology class, but we aren’t what I call “real birders.”
But when my old pal, Jack, invited us to Bisbee, Ariz., to participate in an Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count in Mexico’s northwestern state of Sonora, we jumped at the chance.
Started in 1900, the annual count is a 45,000-participant all-volunteer wildlife survey of the Western Hemisphere. Compilers organize teams in more than 1,700 locations to fan out in a 15-mile radius from a specific point to count the number of bird species and individuals in a 24-hour period.
According to Jack, Sonora has the richest habitat of any desert in the world.
With its varied terrain and plant life, coastline and migration flyways, the state is well-positioned to attract an unusually high number of bird species.
The birders ranged from eight to about 20 participants in the three areas we surveyed. Included were the owners of two of the top U.S. eco-tourism companies, Borderlands Tours and Wings, and Dan and I quickly figured out we were getting the equivalent of an expensive commercial trip.
We were fascinated to observe “real,” expert birders at work. They can ascertain at a glance a bird’s species, age and sex by its vocalizations, coloration, flight pattern and silhouette. Experts spend all day hooting, warbling, whistling, and “pishing” to attract birds. Hours of fieldwork and memorization of guides allow them to detect minute ID differences: a buffy-colored breast, a black lower mandible, a yellow eye ring, a red fringe on the coverts, a clear whistle vs. a warbling call. On this trip, with mere glimpses of or “chips” from about 20 species each of warblers, sparrows and flycatchers, the surveyors had to know their stuff.
Many of the songbirds in the western United States spend half the year in Latin America. We recognized many of the species, leading Dan to ask me the obvious, “Don’t you wonder if any of these grosbeaks are the ones in our yard in the summer?”
But many other species were exotic and exciting to us novices: cardinals, orioles with tangerine-colored heads and yellow breasts, a blue-and white jay that resembles a magpie with a streamer tail, painted redstarts, varied and lazuli buntings, vermilion flycatchers, blue mockingbirds, hummers with red beaks, blue grosbeaks and crested caracaras – the eagle clutching the snake on Mexico’s flag.
To Dan’s and my untutored ears, some of the esoteric specie names we counted could have come from a “Far Side” cartoon: rufous-bellied chacalaca, northern beardless-tyrannulet, elegant trogon, groove-billed ani, orange-billed nightingale-thrush, greater peewee and the ultimate joke name, yellow-bellied sapsucker.
We crossed the border at Naco and drove four hours over mountain roads to our first survey area, Baviacora (“Cave of Snakes” in the Pima Indian language). The small town at 1,800 feet was typical of many we would see during the week: pastel-colored concrete block houses laid out on a grid around a plaza with a large church.
Our first team included Eduardo, a Mexican chemist and biologist Jack met at a cross-border environmental program administrated by Jack’s employer, Bureau of Land Management. Eduardo attended the University of Arizona and speaks perfect English. He promotes eco-tourism in Sonora and is a consultant to companies struggling to comply with Mexico’s environmental impact report laws, in place since 1990.
Between daylong drives over mostly rural roads, we birded dawn to dusk for three days. To get to Yecora (“Rock Walls” in Pima), we took a twisting mountain highway with minimal shoulders and no guard rails. We birded en route in canyons with hecho and prickly pear cacti growing in the shadow of palms, oaks and fig trees. There was snow on the 6,200-foot pass above the small cattle and logging town in a vast valley. Yecora has a hard-scrabble, isolated look, and horses vied with teens on ATVs in its desolate streets.
At 5:30 a.m. in 17 degrees, we left for “owling.” Owls are detected strictly by vocalizations, and our guide that day, Doug, is one of the best birders by sound Jack has seen. We stood in perfect silence on a dirt road as Jim hooted and Doug played scratchy tapes of owl calls. After a satisfying return of hoots and positive IDs, we watched the sun rise and other bird species magically come to life.
We headed for Santa Ana over three miles of winding dirt and creek crossings. A pretty town among valleys and creeks, Santa Ana has many working horses and burros – and four-wheel-drive Ford pickups. We crisscrossed creeks and climbed fences into folks’ orange orchards in search of species. Women washing clothes in outside basins nudged each other and giggled as we passed, and three little boys followed us intermittently.
I asked Eduardo, “So, these people think we’re crazy to spend all this money and come all this way to look at their yard birds, huh?” He thought for a moment then said,” Yeah … and you probably are,” which I couldn’t deny.
Our final stop, Alamos, is a lowland colonial-era town that attracts 500 “snowbirds” – U.S. citizens who live there in winter. Its cathedral was built in the 1500s, and the narrow streets have 300-year-old homes with blank, wrought-iron-trimmed facades hiding living areas around lush patios.
Jack, Dan and I birded on foot down a creek that left town filled with raw sewage. Some of the best birding is near sewage effluent because its abundant insect and plant life is a rich food source. The stench diminished after a half-mile, and, indeed, the creek was rich with water birds: killdeer, kingfishers, spotted sandpipers, egrets and herons. In four miles, we saw 61 species, including magpie jays, white-fronted parrots, flocks of Mexican parrolets and a caracara feeding its young atop a cactus.
After each birding day, at dinner’s end over Modelo Negros, Jack read the lists compiled from last year’s counts. A rep from each team yelled out a number when Jack read a species they’d seen. The real fun was at the end when the reps listed new birds seen this year to a chorus of “Really?!” and “Way to go!” In Baviacora, the teams saw 130 species; 181 in Yecora; and 171 in Alamos.
Our final day was a 500-mile drive up the coast, skirting the ugly edges of Cuidad de Obregon, Guaymas and Hermosillo. Then we veered inland to pass through Baviacora once more, en route to Naco and Los Estados Unidos.
Pat Devereux is a member of The Union staff and the Nevada County Hiking Club .You may contact her c/o The Union, 11464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, CA 95945, or via e-mail at email@example.com
This article was originally published on 1/6/2000.
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