Blog 15: CBC

            To a small, possibly obsessed, segment of the world’s population, the CBC is the most important event in the year.


Bigger than July 7 in Pamplona or July 14 in Paris. Bigger than May 1 in Moscow and the month of March in Munich. Bigger even, maybe, than Super Bowl Sunday. This will be the 114th consecutive year the event is celebrated. It is being held in 2,300 locales, each one a circle with a diameter of exactly 24 kilometers. The same circles every year in precisely the same places. The Compiler for each circle picks a date between December 14 and January 5 for that circle, and the enumerators are permitted to work from the stroke of midnight until 11:29 PM. This year our Complier, Manuel Grosselet, chose December 27.


            I’m talking, of course, about the Christmas Bird Count.


            The circle for the region known as the Valley of Oaxaca includes some agricultural valley floor, some mountain forest, some wetland and some desert. Since the  center point is just north of Oaxaca City, all of San Pablo Etla is inside the circle which is good, because on enumeration day what’s outside the perimeter doesn’t exist. Think census. Not once a decade, but every year. Count all the species in the circle and the number birds in each species. Count both the birds seen and the birds heard. Report the count to the Complier who takes into account the experience of each counter, the number and strength of the collaborative sightings, and the field notes supporting the sightings, notes that may include photographs and recordings. When the tally is complete, the Compiler sends the results to the Audubon Society where the data are checked, tabulated, and published on line. The online info about the CBC claims that it is the citizen-science effort that has involved the greatest number of people for the longest duration anywhere in the world.

            Like the census, the CBC numbers, distributions, and trends have real consequences. They influence conservation efforts. They give warnings about degradation of habitats and show where restoration is working. They track climate change. They affect policy.

            The count is not designed to be competitive, but . . . well, yes, we humans being what we are. . .  While the Compiler’s avowed goal is to count accurately, individual teams push hard to log the maximum number and diversity of birds without, of course, sacrificing accuracy. Find more than the other teams! Get more than last year!

            Bill Stitcher is captain for the San Pablo Etla area; I am staff. Another couple of birders from San Agustín Etla, the Australian guitarist from the Beatles Band and his wife, will be joining us. Bill’s been birding the area for 7 years; I’ve been at it a total, this year and last, of about 10 weeks. I’m getting good at identifying the birds that we see nearly every morning, maybe 25 or 35 different species. But as for the sounds – Bill probably has 60 songs recorded in his brain now; I think I’ve got 6 or 8.

            Since most birds are creatures of habit, careful scouting over the couple of weeks prior to Count Day will raise the teams’s probability of logging a comprehensive count. Since Bill, like most of the birds, seems to be a creature of habit, he and I record the same 2-hour route every morning, and he has 7 years of daily data computer logged so that hunches about trends can be verified and anomalies claimed with certainty. On the daily 3X5 card he logs each bird species located, the number of birds per species, adults and juveniles, males and females, together with the time, temperature, general weather condition, and altitude of each sighting. Once every five days we drive over to the small reservoir of Presa Gutiérrez, San Pablo’s largest body of water. That’s the place where we spotted the Amazon kingfisher about three weeks ago, and have seen it twice since (see Blog #12).

            The two weeks leading up to the CBC we have been varying the times of the visits. Most birds, best variety at dawn? At mid morning? At sunset? Different birds at those different times? The goal is for us to draw up a plan that will maximize our yield

            Tuesday morning, CBC minus 3, we get to the Presa Gutiérrez around 7:00, fifteen minutes before the sun pokes up over the mountain, so everything is in steadily-brightening shadow. Many birds are already active, and our ears ring, though what we mostly see is small silhouettes in motion. Still, we log the first dozen birds in the corn stubble fields and thorn hedges near the place where we can park the car. I shoulder my scope and we head up the dirt road to the bluff where we can first view the Presa.

            “Oh my God!"

            That’s Bill. I set the tripod down and look down over the pond. Below me is a Disaster Area. Capital D, capital A. Sometime in the last five days people with chainsaws have cut down about half of the bushes along the shoreline that provided protection for small birds and perches for the birds that pray on insects and fish (like the Amazon kingfisher). The Presa is in a fairly deep valley, and great gashes have been cut in the brush and thorn trees that cover the valley slopes. About half the casahuate trees, the ones with the white flowers whose nectar draws orioles and hummingbirds, lie in ruins on the ground, their splintered trunks still dripping sap. Some of the rocks have daubs of bright red paint on them, and some of the tree trunks too. The sun is up now, and everything is in sharp relief. Especially our disappointment, because what in these first moments we do not see are the egrets, hummingbirds, grebes, and warblers that are usually here in profusion.

            We work our way down to the point at the end of the pond near the willows. The trail used to be crowded with thorn on both sides and roofed with ficus and lianas that forced us to stoop as we walked and to hold our hands across our chests to keep them from being ripped by the barbs. Now the trail is open, both on the sides and above, and we have to keep our eyes on our feet to avoid stepping on the thorny detritus. The brush around the base of the full-bodied willow at the end of the point has been thinned, making it easier to see up into the heart of the tree where the warblers used to flit about hunting for bugs. At first there is nothing. But after we stand motionless for a few moments we are rewarded by a couple of glimpses of Wilson’s, Townsend’s, and orange crowned warblers. Overhead, circling in a thermal, a white-tailed hawk—we haven’t seen one of those in a while—brightens us up for a moment. We retrace our steps, cut across a mudflat to the dam that used to be choked with willows but has now been trimmed back, giving us a clear view of the whole length of the pond. Two least grebes have emerged from the shadows, and after a moment a pied-billed grebe surfaces in the water behind them, trailing wakes like sparkling chevrons in the horizontal light. Some western tanagers and Cassin’s kingbirds work the trees high on the slopes.

            The reservoir, the valley, and the hill to the pond’s north are all owned by a gravel and construction company, and their caretaker, Vicente, lives with his wife Margarita in a galvanized tin and cane-woven hut across the dam on some flat hardpan where the company stores its machinery. Vicente, a stocky, dark-skinned, salt-and-pepper haired man of about fifty, comes out of his house to see what his dogs are barking at. Behind him emerge his wife and two other women. Vicente has been away for a bit—heart trouble, hospitalization—but now he is back and looking fit. Bill asks about his recovery, introduces me, and we all sit down to chat on some stools that his wife has produced from inside the house. With a grin, Vicente points at the women.

            “These are my three wives,” he beams.

            His one real wife dissolves into giggles. “No, these are my sisters.”

            The sisters explain that they had just stopped by for a visit and how nice it is to meet us. They pick up their mesh bags, each bulging with a knobby white squash that must weight 20 kilos, and head off on foot down the dirt road—more of a track, really—that leads to San Sebastián Etla, a sub-village of San Pablo. We wave goodbye and turn to the heart of the matter.

            “What’s with all the cutting?” Bill asks.

            Bill’s Spanish is pretty good, more than adequate to the task, but he turns to me give some context for the question.

            “This all looks like it has been cut in the last five days or so. All around the pond, and those broad open slashes down the hillsides. We can’t figure it out. It doesn’t look like a road, or a logical place for a fence. And you all have electricity here already, so it is not new lines. Do you know what’s going on?”

            “The dueño, the owner is having it done,” Vicente says, “to mark the lines on his property.”

            Bill looks puzzled. “But I thought he owned all the way up to the ridge tops. Aren’t the boundaries up there?”

            “No, it’s to mark the lines. To put in some concrete posts, like for a fence. Like up there.” He points to a row of concrete posts up near where a huge backhoe sits rusting on the skyline.

            “It’s been there since I’ve lived here. Seven years, never been moved,” Bill whispers.

            “The topographers, the ingenieros topográficos, ... you know with their ... like yours.” He points to the spotting scope and tripod that I’ve left back at the exit from the trail across the dam.

            “Surveyors,” Bill says, though I’d already figured that out.  “I’ll explain on the way back.”

            We talk for another few minutes. I explain about the CBC, and how exited the scientists are about the rare Amazon kingfisher that we saw here a couple of weeks ago. I show them a picture in the birders’ guide that I carry in my shoulder bag. After promises to come back soon (“Friday, we’ll be here Friday,” Bill puts in), and to share a drink of mescal with them one of these days, Bill and I head back toward the car.

            “It’s a legal thing,” Bill tells me. “Get the boundaries officially surveyed and recorded. It gives you precedence if any squatters should move in, or somebody tries to lodge a claim sometime.”

            “But ...  Aren’t the borders up there on the ...”

            “That’s what I had thought. In fact that’s what I still think. It ...” Bill squints and looks up at the ridge to the south. “It doesn’t make any sense. The lines seem so haphazard . . .”

            “Whatever it is, the habitat’s been disturbed,” I say, belaboring the obvious. “Piss-poor luck for Count Day.”

            “Time for plan B. There’s another reservoir, the Presa Gálvez, maybe 70 meters higher than this one. More isolated, so it’s quieter. Not far.”

            Back in the car, we drive higher on a dirt road and turn onto a rutted track that cuts diagonally up across the arroyos, and then down into small ravine with a dam at the end of another pond. It is about half the size of the Presa Gutiérrez, and except for the far end has almost no vegetation along its shores. A half dozen thick rubber hoses draped over the side of the dam siphon water for irrigation down to the milpas, the corn fields far below us. 

            “Maybe some of the water birds have moved up here,” Bill ventures.

            But they haven’t. Perhaps it is the hour, or the cool breeze, or the lack of vegetation, but nothing is moving except a couple of kingbirds and vermillion flycatchers foraging for insects along the hillsides, and three least grebes at the far end of the pond under a scrawny willow.

            On the way home we discuss plan C, which we agree to leave in pencil for the time being. The morning loop behind the Casas Encantadas in San Pablo. Then maybe an hour at the Presa Gutiérrez, focusing on the marshy area near the point, with eyes and ears alert for the Amazon kingfisher. Then, if it is still thin at the big pond, forget the Presa Gálvez and drive up the mountain, through the lower sections of the forest, at least as far as the little dell with the stream at the third hairpin turn on the mountain road. Or maybe even farther if the birding’s good. Bring jackets for the altitude. Pack a lunch.


            And so we will . . .

            More to follow.