|Twice each month, the National Park Service offers winter bird walks at Montezuma Well, as park ranger Melinda McFarland introduces people to the diverse bird life inhabiting the different ecosystems around the Well. VVN/Bill Helm|
|Birdwatchers look at a guide to southwestern birds on Jan. 4 at Montezuma Well. VVN/Bill Helm|
RIMROCK - Melinda McFarland first became interested in birding when she worked as an intern at Montezuma Well two years ago.
Now a park ranger with National Park Service, McFarland leads bird walks at the Well.
On Jan. 4, NPS began this year's annual bird walks, with McFarland guiding birdwatchers through an exploration of bird life inhabiting the various ecosystems around the Well.
"My goal with these bird walks is to help visitors identify birds that may be found in their own backyard, giving names to species, observing behaviors unique to each species and the role these birds play in the larger environment of the Well," McFarland said. "There is something so powerful about looking out your kitchen window when doing dishes and being able to identify the bird that flies past. Identifying what is around you brings your surroundings to life, makes them part of your world."
The bi-monthly bird walks are "something the community looks forward to," said Dorothy FireCloud, superintendent of Montezuma Well, Montezuma Castle National Monument and Tuzigoot National Monument. "It's a good opportunity to learn quite a bit about nature and about birds."
In this year's first trek, birdwatchers saw at least 17 different species, McFarland said, though there might have been "more out there that escaped the diligent eyes of the group."
McFarland said she was particularly excited to see a waterbird called a Sora.
"Although they can be common, they can be tricky to spot in freshwater marshes with a lot of cattails, so we are lucky to have one that has chosen to spend the winter in Montezuma Well," McFarland said. "It is a small bird, so binoculars are a must for all who want to catch a glimpse."
The variety of species "was excellent," McFarland said. "We saw raptors, songbirds [and] waterfowl. That is the great thing about Montezuma Well. It is a riparian area, which provides a suitable habitat for a variety of birds and serves as flight path for many migrating species. Riparian areas of the Verde Valley support a diversity of plants and animals and serve an important role in scientific discovery and species survival as habitat is lost to development worldwide.
"Without this riparian area, the diversity of species of bird we get to see would diminish," she also said. "People are going to want to preserve areas that they feel a connection to."
According to McFarland, the number one fundamental to bird watching is to bring binoculars and a field guide.
"The key to birding is to get close enough to a bird but not too close, flushing out the bird or causing it to fly away," she said. "Once you have spotted a bird and can get a good look, the next step is identification. Look at the size, shape and location of the bird. Do you notice any distinguishing features, colors, wing bars or spots? These can be important clues to what kind of bird you have just noticed."
Besides educating people, McFarland also said she hopes "to provide an open and enjoyable avenue for people to come out and enjoy nature and this amazing place."
"You don't need to be a birder to come on these walks," McFarland said. "We welcome the folks who just want to go for stroll in the morning as Well."
McFarland also recommends that beginning birders start at places where birds are used to being around people, such as a park - or Montezuma Well.
"These places provide great practicing spots, because the birds may be more used to seeing people," she said. "Also bring a small notebook, so if you can't identify a bird in the field, you can describe or draw some features that could help identify it later."
Fran Haegele traveled from her Phoenix home to participate in the Jan. 4 bird walk, her first time birding, she said.
"I have a book at home. And my dad's really into [birding]," Haegele said.
Also at the Jan. 4 bird walk, David Jamieson of Phoenix admitted that he is a novice birdwatcher. With camera in hand, Jamieson, with his wife Debby, suggested that one should not forget to bring a coat, hat or gloves when watching birds in the winter.
According to McFarland, birding takes practice. And willingness to learn from each other.
"Don't be discouraged if you can only identify a couple of birds the first time," she said. "The more you get comfortable with your field guide and the differences of shape between species, it will become much easier. Once you feel comfortable identifying by sight, you can then move on to more difficult identifying features like the bird's song or call."
McFarland also said that for those who would like to learn about bird watching, it is a good idea to go to a site and just watch the birds.
"Sit among the birds and just watch their behavior, how they interact with other birds," McFarland said. "These observations in behavior will not only give you a greater appreciation for birds, but can provide valuable insight for future identification. If you like learning in groups, most places offer guided bird walks or you can join your local Audubon society. I have learned so much from birding with people that have more experience."
A common misconception about birding, McFarland said, is that it is boring.
"I also think people believe it is a sedentary activity," she said. "If you have ever noticed a bird and sat and watched it for a little bit, guess what. You were birding. Although some people do like just to sit in one spot and see what birds come their way, you can also bird [watch] while hiking around. Birding while hiking is one of my favorite activities. When you need a little break, just look around and see if you spot any birds. Birding doesn't need to be a solitary experience. Take along some friends and just enjoy being outside."
Weather permitting, bird walks will begin at 8:30 a.m. every first and third Saturday through April. McFarland will meet visitors at the Well's picnic area and help identify birds around the site, while interpreting different species and their roles in the local environment. Participants should bring water and binoculars, if they have them, and wear clothing and footwear appropriate for an easy to moderate hike. Each bird walk will last approximately two hours.
"If you have birds around, you know that your environment is healthy," FireCloud said. "We live in an awesome place. We are fortunate to live here."
For more information on the bi-monthly bird walks, call the Montezuma Castle Visitor Center (928) 567-3322, ext. 221. Montezuma Well is a unit of the Montezuma Castle National Monument, located 11 miles north of Montezuma Castle at 5525 E. Beaver Creek Road in Rimrock.
-- Follow Bill Helm on Twitter @BillHelm42