Because it provides long-term data, one of the tools potentially useful to assessing the effect of severe fires (2010, 2011) in the Chiricahua Mountains is data from a Breeding Bird Survey run on a 25-mile route within the range, over a span of 38 years. Prior to 2013, thirty-one U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Breeding Bird Survey counts have been conducted on a route that starts near the road junction to Whitetail Canyon, continuing over to Paradise, then Portal, and on up to Rustler and Long Parks at higher elevation. These official USFWS counts began in 1975. Dr. Walter Spofford, a retired ornithologist from Cornell University living in the canyon, designed and conducted the route in its early years. Counts were run every year with the exception of 1988, 1989, 1991, and 1994 (likely due to the Rattlesnake Fire). The three years prior to 2013, that would have provided quite valuable data in 2010, 2011 (year of the Horseshoe II fire), and 2012 were also not run.
Peg Abbott, a professional birding guide for Naturalist Journeys, LLC, who lives in Portal, agreed to pick up the route and keep it active. She was familiar with the count protocol, having run a route in northwest Wyoming for many years. Abbott is on the board of the Friends of Cave Creek Canyon, a non-profit group interested in supporting long-term monitoring on Coronado National Forest. Another board member, Wynne Brown, agreed to assist in the task that required much of a day and an 0443 (sunrise) rendezvous.
Over the 38-year span, 131 bird species have been recorded along the Portal Breeding Bird Survey route 06133. The highest number of species in any one year was 86 (1993) and the lowest was 54 (1975). This year’s count will come in second when tallied, with 83 species having been detected. Over the years, four counts had totals in the 50-59 species range (1975, ’76, ’77, ’78); six counts had totals in the 60-69 species range (’79, ’81, ’87, ’90, ’97, ’99); nine counts had totals in the 70-79 species range (’80,’82, ’83, ’84, ’85, ‘86, 95, ’96, ’98) and two counts previously noted over 80 species (‘92, ‘93).
Count observers receive maps and instructions from the USFWS ahead of the count. They drive a designated 25-mile route, stopping every half-mile to listen for a 3-minute period. Every attempt is made to keep the stops consistent year to year. This year, Abbott and Brown added GPS coordinates to the route, a great technological tool for this type of work. One person (Abbott) recorded bird data, counting all individual bird calls and sightings, and noting their species. The other person (Brown) took monitored the timer, recorded weather data, marked GPS waypoints, and navigated the route.
Over the years the number of individual birds has ranged considerably, from 206 (1975) to 929 (1992). This year’s total of 505 individuals was just under the average for the 31 counts of 530 individuals.
On June 11, 2013, Abbott and Brown met at the start point just ahead of the 0443 start time. They said to each other, “On your mark, get set, GO”. A sense of participating in a historical conservation effort, pioneered by esteemed local Portal residents, helped inspire them. The 25-mile route for Portal (BBS 06133) starts on the Galeyville Road, close to the junction with the road to Whitetail Canyon. The route ends at the lower end of the big meadow at Long Park. Clues on the official tally sheet at times were less than helpful: “cairn on left side of road” (long since gone), “Red-tailed Hawk nest in sycamore tree” (many sycamores, no nest), and “cattle guard” (no longer there). At stop 16 Brown said, “Oh my,” recognizing the scope of their task. Powered by snacks, friendship, and a fascination with the remarkable diversity and beauty of the area, they finished the count, walking the last four points (2 miles) due to the closure of the road for the Rustler Park Campground rehabilitation.
A few notes on the 2013 count: All species that have been seen on nearly all (29-31) of the 31 counts were found again this year. Of 23 species regularly encountered (seen on 20-28 counts), only Greater Roadrunner was missed. Seven species detected on 10-19 (less than half) of the counts were not recorded: Great-Horned Owl, Elegant Trogon, Juniper Titmouse (though this species was heard at one of the points, it was not noted in a 3-minute observation block), Red-breasted Nuthatch, Hooded Oriole, Bullock’s Oriole, and House Sparrow. Within the category of those detected on less than 10 of the 31 counts, observers had no expectations of finding them, but Abbott noted several of this 2-9 count category including: Scaled Quail, Montezuma Quail, Cooper’s Hawk, Northern Pygmy Owl, Magnificent Hummingbird, Rock Wren, and Eastern Meadowlark. Two species were noted that had only been on one count within the 38-year span, though both are considered to be regular breeders in the Chiricahuas in Rick Taylor’s Location Checklist to the Birds of the Chiricahuas: Black-tailed Gnatcatcher (recorded at one stop), and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (recorded at six stops).
While many variables play into the patterns observed from the Breeding Bird Survey, the patterns can be informative, and they alert wildlife managers and observers to further monitor species of concern. Two species of those that occur in 20 or more counts, Summer Tanager and Hooded Oriole, do not occur in the last eight counts, absent since 2002. One of these, Summer Tanager, was recorded this year.
Summary data as background for the 2013 Portal Breeding Bird Survey
Gambel’s Quail, White-winged Dove, Acorn Woodpecker, Northern (Red-shafted) Flicker, Western Wood Pewee, Cassin’s Kingbird, Mexican Jay, White-breasted Nuthatch, Cactus Wren, Bewick’s Wren, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Spotted Towhee, Black-throated Sparrow, Yellow-eyed Junco, Western Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Brown-headed Cowbird.
(12) Species that have been detected on most counts, all but 1-2 years (29 or 30 counts):
Mourning Dove, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Plumbeous Vireo, Steller’s Jay, Bridled Titmouse, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, Hepatic Tanager, Scott’s Oriole, and House Finch.
(23) Species that have been detected on 20-28 counts:
Turkey Vulture, Red-tailed Hawk, Greater Roadrunner, White-throated Swift, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Western Kingbird, Hutton’s Vireo, Warbling Vireo, Western Scrub Jay, Common Raven, Violet-green Swallow, Pygmy Nuthatch, Canyon Wren, Hermit Thrush, Curve-billed Thrasher, Lucy’s Warbler, Audubon’s Warbler, Grace’s Warbler, Canyon Towhee, Northern Cardinal, Blue Grosbeak
(30) Species detected on 10-19 counts:
Band-tailed Pigeon, Great-Horned Owl, Common Poorwill, Blue-throated Hummingbird, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Elegant Trogon, Hairy Woodpecker, Arizona Woodpecker, Greater Pewee, Black Phoebe, Say’s Phoebe, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Mexican Chickadee, Juniper Titmouse, Verdin, Bushtit, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, House Wren, Olive Warbler, Virginia’s Warbler, Red-faced Warbler, Painted Redstart, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, Summer Tanager, Hooded Oriole, Bullock’s Oriole, Lesser Goldfinch, and House Sparrow.
Scaled Quail (8), Montezuma Quail (3), Sharp-shinned Hawk (3), Cooper’s Hawk (6), Northern Goshawk (3), Zone-tailed Hawk (2), Golden Eagle (4), American Kestrel (5), Peregrine Falcon (3), Prairie Falcon (3), Northern Pygmy Owl (4), Lesser Nighthawk (5), Magnificent Hummingbird (9), Bell’s Vireo (2), Chihuahuan Raven (2), Purple Martin (2), Barn Swallow (2), Rock Wren (8), Eastern Bluebird (2), Western Bluebird (6), Crissal Thrasher (6), European Starling (5), Phainopepla (6), Yellow-breasted Chat (3), Black-chinned Sparrow (9), Lark Sparrow (7), Pyrrhuloxia (6), Indigo Bunting (4), Eastern Meadowlark (6), Bronzed Cowbird (6), Red Crossbill (3), and Pine Siskin (6).
(17) Species detected on only one of 31 counts in a 38 year period.
Wild Turkey, Short-tailed Hawk, Swainson’s Hawk, Killdeer, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Buff-breasted Flycatcher, Vermilion Flycatcher, Loggerhead Shrike, Clark’s Nutcracker, Horned Lark, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Townsend’s Solitaire, Varied Bunting, and Western Meadowlark.