First Christmas Bird Count yields 104 species in a single day

Photo By Diane Drobka: Here are some of the more than 600 American Wigeons that were present on the ponds and lawns at the Mt. Graham Golf Course represent the highest count of waterfowl during the survey.

Contributed Article

GRAHAM COUNTY – History was made on Dec. 27 as volunteers from Safford, Pima, Globe, Vail, and Phoenix conducted Graham County’s first Christmas Bird Count (CBC), the Safford CBC. That day, birders counted every bird they saw within a 15-mile diameter count circle and tallied 8,527 birds. The one-day count yielded 104 bird species ranging from Anna’s Hummingbird to Yellow-rumped Warbler. 

Photo By Diane Drobka: Yellow-rumped Warblers are a fairly common sight throughout the Gila Valley.

Rarities noted include a small flycatcher called Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet and three immature Snow Geese. Infrequent visitors such as American Goldfinch, Greater White-fronted Goose, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker were also seen. 

Three blackbird species had high numbers, with 1,677 Yellow-headed Blackbirds, 456 Red-winged Blackbirds, and 271 Great-tailed Grackles. The most abundant of the 19 waterfowl species seen were 642 American Wigeons and 247 Northern Shovelers. White-winged, Mourning, Inca, and Eurasian Collared doves totaled more than 600 doves of the four species. More than 400 Gambel’s Quail and nearly 400 White-crowned Sparrows were counted.

This is the 121st year for the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, which utilizes the skills of thousands of birders throughout the United States and beyond. The new Safford CBC joins more than 30 other counts occurring in Arizona between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5.

The 113,000-acre count circle was divided into nine zones, with one block being inaccessible due to rugged roadless terrain. The remaining eight blocks were surveyed by five teams of birders, with three of the teams each covering two blocks. 

Graham County has more than 60 birding “hotspots” that are listed on eBird, an online database of bird sightings created and maintained by Cornell University. “We tried to position our count circle to include the most productive hotspots in the Safford-Thatcher area,” said Diane Drobka, who helped organize the count. “We also wanted to cover as many habitat types as possible and, luckily, Graham County is very diverse.” 

Cluff Ranch Wildlife Area, Discovery Park, Reay Lane Reclamation Ponds and Marsh, Mt. Graham Golf Course, Graham County Park, Roper Lake State Park, Dankworth Pond, the Gila River, and areas accessed via lower Swift Trail such as Noon Creek, part of the Ladybug Trail, Jacobson Canyon, and several small ponds were all within the count circle. The highest elevations in the Pinaleño Mountains within the count circle, however, were inaccessible due to snow closures and locked gates. 

Photo By Diane Drobka: Three species of ducks are shown in this photo; a striking male Bufflehead on the right being followed by a female, a male Canvasback above left, and a female Lesser Scaup bottom left.

Anyone can view a list of the species seen on the count day on eBird; simply go to ebird.com and choose Explore. Under Region, type in Graham and select Graham, Arizona, to view a chronological list of bird species and select checklists for Dec. 27.

If you would like to learn about birds, Roper Lake State Park offers a monthly Saturday bird walk on “the island” each month. A checklist of Graham County birds, currently at 377 species, is being updated for publication by the Graham County Chamber of Commerce to promote nature tourism. 

The Gila Valley will also host the 2021 annual Arizona Field Ornithologists meeting in October; new members are welcome. If you would like ideas of how to get involved in local birding, contact Diane Drobka at sunny1az@yahoo.com.

The following slide show contains various birds all photographed by Diane Drobka.

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