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‘Birding with a purpose’

Ethan Linck, a postdoctoral fellow in biology at UNM, looks for birds from Deception Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains earlier this month. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A community science project is unfolding on the mountain slopes above Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

Researchers at the University of New Mexico and elsewhere are asking bird-watchers to take note of the birds they see and hear during breeding season – part of a multi-year project intended to help scientists understand how bird populations respond to climate change.

Ethan Linck, a postdoctoral research fellow in biology at UNM, helped start the project, called the Mountain Bird Network. He described it as a fun, meaningful way to involve the community in scientific research.

Scientists, Linck said, have examined how bird populations in tropical areas are responding to climate change. But they could use a good baseline for birds in North America – information they can come back to in future years to see whether certain species are, say, moving up the mountain side as the Earth gets hotter.

A northern flicker stands on a rock in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Volunteers are counting birds at select locations in New Mexico. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“There have been relatively few studies asking this same question in North America,” Linck said in a recent interview. But “what we do have is an amazing, dedicated group of bird-watchers all across the country.”

Deception Peak by the Santa Fe ski area and the Sandia Mountains by Albuquerque, he said, are great places for watching birds.

They are part of the project, along with Mount Hood in Oregon and Mount Seymour in British Columbia.

The project is already attracting experienced birders.

Jenna McCullough, a third-generation bird-watcher and doctoral student at UNM, said she visited Santa Fe several mornings in June, stopping at a series of campgrounds and pullouts near the ski area for five minutes at a time to record birds.

She said she “jumped at the chance to bird with a purpose.”

UNM’s Ethan Linck and Fred Carey, from Arizona, hike along the Ravens Ridge Trail to Deception Peak. They and others are part of a project to count birds in mountain areas at select locations. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Involved in science

The project monitors birds during breeding season. This year’s work started June 1 and was set to end Thursday, though Linck said any data collected in the week or so would likely by helpful, too.

Birders who want to help are asked to visit either the Deception Peak area – such as the road up to Ski Santa Fe – or the Sandia Mountains between sunrise and 10 a.m.

“Basically, anywhere on the mountain is fair game,” Linck said.

Ethan Linck uses an app to record birds he has seen from Deception Peak. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Using the free eBird app created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, participants should stand in one place for five minutes and record all the birds they see and hear. More specific instructions are published on Linck’s Mountain Bird Network site.

Linck said the project isn’t just for experienced birders. People who aren’t confident in their skills are welcome to download the Merlin Bird app or other tools that use photos and audio recordings to identify birds.

“Even if people aren’t experts, if they can identify any bird they can help out – even if you just know what a robin looks like and that’s the only species you know,” Linck said.

One goal of the Mountain Bird Project, he said, is simply to get ordinary people involved in science.

Linck said he hopes the project helps “demystify” science and show that it isn’t something confined to exclusive universities.

“When you participate in one of these community science projects,” he said, “you are playing a role in the scientific process that can then be turned into public knowledge.

“It also lets people see some of the messiness in the science. There’s going to be a lot of uncertainty,” he said.

Learning to care

McCullough, who studies the genetics and evolution of such pacific birds as kingfishers, said the project was a fun way to contribute to scientific research.

“The more people connect with nature,” she said, “the more they’ll care about it and care about conservation.”

Linck said the project will help shed light on how New Mexico species are adapting to climate change. Roadrunners, for example, are a frequent sight in Albuquerque, but they appear to be showing up more often, he said, in Santa Fe County.


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