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ALBUQUERQUE – Phred Benham’s ears easily picked out the “cheep” of a ladder-backed woodpecker from the din of a late afternoon on the University of New Mexico campus.
The 25-year-old University of New Mexico graduate student set off across a little campus road toward University House, where many of the university’s presidents have lived over the years.
Raising his binoculars, Benham spotted the woodpecker as she tap-tap-tapped her way around the trunk of a crab apple in the front yard of the house.
“He’s got some great bird habitat,” Benham said of UNM President David Schmidly, for whom the house serves as a ceremonial on-campus residence.
When it comes to campus bird habitat, Benham and a group of friends know what they’re talking about. Since May, the bird-watching students and faculty members have been scouring the campus, compiling a list of all the birds they see. The informal “UNM Campus Bigyear” project is already up to 105 species, and ornithology professor Chris Witt says they could easily get more than 130 by the time the project wraps up next April.
Benham and his friends began the search in May. A bird-watcher since he was 7 years old, Benham is working on his master’s degree, studying hummingbirds in the Andes of South America, looking at the way they adapt to differences in the mountain range’s complex ecosystems.
Like many bird-watchers, Benham keeps lists yard lists, state lists, day lists, life lists. As a busy grad student, though, he had less time to go bird-watching. But as he walked around campus, the New Hampshire native realized he was seeing all kinds of interesting bird life.
A half-hour, he found, was all it took to come up with a nice list. So he and his friends launched their “Campus Bigyear” project to see just how many birds they could find.
“The big goal,” he said, “is just to figure out how many species of birds you see on campus.”
The UNM campus, which can seem as much like an elaborate park as a university, with its groves of trees and little pocket gardens, has proven enormously rich bird-watching territory.
In May, the team found a migrating marsh wren in a willow by the duck pond. “I suspect that one tree is the only place on campus suitable for a marsh wren,” Witt said.
In a nearby desert garden tucked into the western edge of Zimmerman Library, the birders found a black-throated sparrow, a desert bird Witt said you would never expect to see in the middle of the city.
“These are birds that were migrating at night and searching for suitable places to feed and rest in the morning,” Witt said. “They’ll settle down in the first adequate place they find.”
The University of New Mexico has a long bird history. In 1918, famed naturalist Aldo Leopold, who lived in Albuquerque at the time, prepared a “Bird Plan” for the university campus, with suggestions on how to attract birds to it.
Much of the area Leopold wrote about is now covered with buildings, but maintaining the groves of trees and varied gardens on the main campus’s 211 acres remains an ongoing project, with a team of arborists and groundskeepers maintaining about 450 different plant species, said university landscape architect Sue Mortier.
Birds are a happy side effect of maintaining the many garden areas, Mortier said.
Among the rarities Benham and the other birders have reported are an acorn woodpecker and an endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher.
Or, for sure bets, there is the duck pond, where you are pretty much guaranteed to see mallards any time you want.
“We live in a desert,” Benham said, “and anywhere you provide water, it’s going to be a magnet for birds.”