Taking wing with New Mexico’s bird man
Ollie Reed / Albuquerque Journal Staff Writer
Reprinted with permission
Hart Schwarz and I are sitting in a Northeast Heights coffeehouse, but when Schwarz talks about birds he can transport you anywhere – a marshy patch of ground in the Zuni Mountains, a stand of firecracker-red maples at Fourth of July Canyon near Tajique, or – as is the case on this day last week – a cave behind a waterfall in the Jemez Mountains.
Schwarz did bird surveys for the Cibola National Forest for 30 years before physical setbacks prompted him to retire “early” last month at age 75. But birds are his life.
That Jemez Mountain cave he’s talking about is one of three places in New Mexico discovered to be a nesting place of the mysterious black swift, a bird difficult to study because it spends most of its time in the sky, eating on the wing and coming to ground only to roost at night or to feed the single youngster it produces. From the late 1990s into the mid-2000s, Schwarz went to that cave every year, settling in for five or six hours at a time, from afternoon until early dusk, listening to the persistent hum of the waterfall, gazing into the pool of water on the cave floor.
“I spent a lot of time in that cave in late summer and early fall,” Schwarz said. “When they come in, they land on the wall of the cave and work their way over to the nest and regurgitate the food – which a lot of birds do – but it was so moving because very few people have seen black swifts feeding.
“Those days in the cave were some of my most contemplative and meaningful in birding – even though it was mostly just waiting. It was almost like a religious experience.”
Schwarz is likely the only person on earth who gets a spiritual high from watching a bird vomit.
Born in Berlin in 1939, he moved to the United States with his family in 1950. He studied to be a teacher and earned a master’s degree in German literature from the University of Southern California in 1972. Before that, however, he got hooked on birds while teaching at Los Alamos High School in 1964-65 and making frequent excursions to nearby Bandelier National Monument. When I first met him 14 years ago, he explained his fascination to me.
“Birds move. They are alive. They are dynamic,” he said. “When light hits them in a certain way, it is like an epiphany. When you are sitting at the top of a canyon at sunset and you hear the voice of a hermit thrush, it brings out the poet in you. It brings out the artist in you.”
Schwarz taught in the United States, New Guinea and Australia, but he kept returning to birds and to New Mexico. He took some ornithology courses at the University of New Mexico, but most of what he knows about birds is based on intense study in the field. By 1984, he was expert enough to start doing contract work for the U.S. Forest Service. By 1995, he was a permanent employee.
The bird surveys he did for Cibola National Forest took him from southwestern New Mexico into the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma. He led an Albuquerque leg of the Audubon Society’s international Christmas bird count for 25 years. On the second Saturday in May from 1998 through 2014, he organized and conducted the International Migratory Bird Day program at the Quarai National Monument, 10 miles northwest of Mountainair.
But the days of tramping through forests and scrambling up to near-inaccessible caves are over now for the silver-haired Schwarz.
“Neuropathy,” he said. “It numbs the nerves in my hands and my feet and impairs my walking. And it causes incredible fatigue, which is even harder to deal with than my inability to walk.
“I will miss International Migratory Bird Day, but now is a time when the reward is much reduced. There are fewer birds migrating through the Estancia Valley.”
In 2005, 271 individual birds and 62 species were recorded at the Quarai event. Last May, just 74 birds and 38 species were logged. Schwarz noticed a big drop in warblers and flycatchers in particular.
Why? Climate change? Drought? Disease?
“We don’t know all the reasons why,” Schwarz said. “They are not as productive as they used to be, there are not as many young.”
He tells about the strange sensation he experienced last June at Fourth of July Canyon.
“The birds were there, but they were not singing,” he said. “When they are breeding, there is also singing – for courtship, defense of territory. Last year, they were not behaving in a way that suggested they were breeding. The point is we are seeing fewer species, fewer birds. What will bring them back? Maybe a few wet years. But if a population is severely impacted, it may take a long time.”
That’s disturbing for someone who loves birds as Schwarz does, but the implications are more dire than diminished opportunities to see birds.
“A person once asked what difference there would be if we lost all our spotted owls,” Schwarz said. “For one thing, there would be a lot more mice in the forest. There are always consequences when a balance is upset. Everything is so interrelated that the human population will eventually suffer.”
It is unusual, unsettling to see Schwarz so somber when he’s talking about birds.
But his spirits, like the black swift, are never down long. He brightens suddenly and transports you with him to Bluewater Canyon southwest of Grants, to a place he knows, a place he can drive to, a place that would not require much walking, a place he can see peregrine falcons.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Ollie at 823-3916 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Go to http://www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
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