Montana’s Christmas Bird Count captures surprises and disappointments

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A week before Christmas, on a cool, cloudy and increasingly windier day, 26 “bird watchers” roamed the streams, fields and woods of Cascade County to see what species of birds they could find and how many. ‘among themselves they could count.

In just one day, volunteers in our region identified 57 different bird species, a number quite typical for the event. Of the nearly 25,600 birds counted throughout the day, nearly 60% were Canada geese – a result also unsurprisingly. What is surprising is that in just over 60 years, Canada geese have come to dominate the winter bird population in Cascade County.

“I know historically from what I’ve read that there weren’t many geese in the winter before the 1960s,” said Nora Gray, one of the main organizers of the Christmas Bird Count. of this year. “In 1959 there were only 53 Canada geese counted, and the following year there were none. At the time, only one person may have done the count, but still. The numbers have increased dramatically since then.

The 10 most abundant species from the 2021 Christmas Bird Count

Species Counted number Origin
Canada Goose 15,327 Native
Mallard duck 2,093 Native
House sparrow 1,825 Introduced
Common golden eye duck 1499 Native
Rock pigeon 991 Introduced
Starling 804 Introduced
American coot 552 Native
House finch 473 Native
Withers head duck 416 Native
Eurasian Collared Dove 258 Introduced

Tracking fluctuations in populations of birds like the Canada geese is just one of the goals of the Christmas Bird Count.

Each year, Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count mobilizes more than 70,000 volunteer bird counters at more than 2,300 sites across the Western Hemisphere, from the Arctic Circle to the southern tip of South America. The tally produces the most comprehensive set of data describing the fluctuation, range and movement of bird populations across the continent. Scientists are using this trending data to better understand how birds and the environment are doing and what needs to be done to protect them.

Data from annual Christmas bird censuses are at the heart of hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific studies and help inform decisions made by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of the Interior, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Because birds are early indicators of environmental threats, Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count has also become a vital survey of ecosystems in North America and the Western Hemisphere.

A flaming redbird poses for a photo as he sits on a fence screw.  "We saw this one on Vineyard Road," said Beth Hill, organizer of the Christmas Bird Count.  "Others have seen them in similar habitats - grassy roadsides or field stubble."

Every winter, the Christmas bird count ends with surprises and disappointments. Gray, who has been the official compiler of the local bird count results since 2009, commented on some of them.

“The rockfish was a pleasant surprise,” she said. “Some years we won’t see and other years we will only see one or two if we’re lucky, but this year there were quite a few (37). They are called ‘eruptives “Because some years there can be a really good seed crop in one place. They’ll just move around in groups. They’re just cute little birds.”

Another pleasant surprise for bird watchers was the large number of raptors seen this year, including 55 bald eagles, 44 rough-legged hawks and 14 golden eagles, as well as several other species.

“Bald eagles were active and seen everywhere,” Gray said. “A frozen river and duck hunting season can provide an attractive amount of food for a bald eagle. Bald eagles will consume large numbers of injured waterfowl, much like they did in Glacier National Park when salmon were spawning. that where a foraging opportunity is concentrated, you’re going to have more bald eagles.

Wild turkeys have also been observed in great abundance. The 184 seen this year are almost triple the number seen just a year ago.

“Fish, Wildlife and Parks planted a few years ago somewhere in the Ulm area,” Gray noted with a laugh. “It didn’t take them too long to breed and show up south of town and in the Fox Farm area. They don’t have too many predators at this point, and I don’t know if they have. open the hunting season in that area or not. They let the population increase. “

“What was really surprising was that no one saw blue jays,” she added, “and I haven’t heard of anyone who has reported blue jays this winter. We have them. had these last winters, and now it’s like – where are they? I don’t know. “

The scarcity of once relatively more common songbirds such as the Horned Lark, Bohemian Wax, White-breasted Nuthatch, and Townsend’s Solitaire is also of concern. Gray said it’s unclear whether the shortage of these colorful winter visitors is a long-term trend or just a one-year anomaly.

“It’s a little hard to say,” she said. “(Many of these birds) are here one winter, they are elsewhere another winter. They move in large groups during the winter. You can have them in your yard for three days, and then they’re gone. Some years they will “I stay all winter and other years most of their numbers will move south. That is why doing these counts over a period of years and across the country is so important to assess the health of the species. “

Christmas bird counts evolved as an alternative to a late 19th century holiday tradition where many families came together to participate in a ‘parallel hunt’, in which teams competed to see who could shoot. the most birds. In 1900, Dr. Frank Chapman, founder of Bird-Lore – which became Audubon magazine – suggested an alternative to this tradition. Rather than hunting and killing birds, Chapman’s idea was to count them. It turned into Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, now in its 121st year.

The citizen science event was first held in Montana, including Great Falls, in 1911. At Great Falls, Christmas bird counts were held sporadically until 1960 and resumed in 1981. Since then it has been an annual eventUpper Missouri breaks Audubon project.

To learn more about the Audubon Society’s Upper Missouri Breaks Chapter, visit the group’s website. atumbaudubon.weebly.com. There you can find local birding opportunities, sign up to receive their newsletter, and participate in their regular remote lecture series.

“There is real science being done here,” Gray said.

Raw Christmas Bird Count Data

Cackling Goose: 174 White-breasted nuthatch: 1 American Kestrel: 2 House Finch: 473
White-backed duck: 2 American Robin: 8 American Coot: 552 House sparrow: 1,825
Lesser Scaup: 22 Tree Sparrow: 32 Eurasian Collared Dove: 258 Northern pintail: 1
Barrow’s Goldeneye: 61 Flamed Sizerin: 37 Belted Kingfisher: 1 Collared duck: 4
Red duck: 8 Familiar Sparrow: 3 Northern Red Sleeve Glitter: 26 Withers: 1,499
Wild turkey: 184 Ring-necked pheasant: 118 American Raven: 43 Sharp-tailed Grouse: 13
Bald Eagle: 55 Unknown Buteo species: 4 Black-capped Chickadee: 155 Sharp Falcon: 1
Red-tailed Hawk: 5 Piping swan: 2 Brown climbing plant: 1 Rough-legged Falcon: 44
Golden eagle: 4 Red Duck: 42 Starling: 804 Merlin: 2
Prairie Falcon: 2 Withers: 416 Black-eyed Junco: 1 Sad dove: 1
Rock pigeon: 991 Hooded Merganser: 9 Goldfinch: 31 Minor Woodpecker: 8
Great Horned Owl: 1 Hungarian partridge: 3 Unknown Falcon: 1 Nordic Shrike: 3
Nordic Flicker: 23 Pied-billed Grebe: 1 Raven: 10 Great Merganser: 9
Eurasian Magpie: 248 Northern Harrier: 8 Red-breasted nuthatch: 4 Canada Goose: 15,327
Horned Lark: 112 Harlan’s Falcon: 2 Townsend Solitaire: 1 Mallard: 2,093
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