Bird count

Bob Martinka looks through his binoculars during the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count in 2017.

(This story was included in the Ravalli Republic's Winter Recreation publication that was included in Sunday's newspaper. Copies are available at the Ravalli Republic office.) 

Christmas time for birders means it’s time to clean the binoculars and spotting scopes, find the warm field clothes and be sure to find the bird guide.

It’s Christmas Bird Count time in the Bitterroot and nationwide.

For the 120th time citizen scientists will go to the field to count as many as possible of the birds occupying a 7.5 mile radius, 178 square mile circle. Compilers will report the results of nearly 2,000 count circles across the U.S. and another 500 in Canada, Mexico and Central America.

Bitterroot Audubon sponsors three annual counts around Hamilton, Stevensville and in the Big Hole Valley.

The 33rd Hamilton CBC occurs on Dec. 14, the 57th Stevensville count on Dec. 28 and the 10th Big Hole count in the first week of January depending on the weather.

The Stevi count, started in 1963, is one of the two oldest in Montana. Yellowstone Audubon in Billings initiated their count the same year or in 1964.

We welcome the participation of anyone interested in learning more about winter birds in the Bitterroot. We especially like beginning birders who will always be paired with more experienced folks who know the area and the birds.

The groups gather at about 7:30 a.m. with the intent of getting to the field by daylight about 8. Hamilton counters gather at The Teller Education Barn (for the 33rd time) and Stevensville birders meet at the Stevi Ranger Station.

Big Hole counters meet at the Wisdom Restaurant for breakfast and proceed to the field from there.

The Hamilton group honors a 32-year-old tradition by meeting back at The Teller for lunch featuring homemade chili and Oreos, and of course some delectable Christmas goodies. The counts are serious endeavors, but congenial birders interested in sharing their knowledge with beginners make the atmosphere competitive but lots of fun.

The National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count data represents the largest bird database compiled in North America with 119 years of records of bird counts throughout the U.S.

Just considering the local data, we can learn something about the fluctuation of local populations and think about the range expansion of exotic or native species.

For instance, California Quail first appeared in the Stevi count in 2000 when 17 were enumerated. By 2005 they appeared in both count circles and 74 were seen. In 2010 participants counted 1,049.

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Eurasian Collared Doves first appeared in Steve in 2017 when 11 were seen. They were seen in the Hamilton circle in 2008, but there were only 3. In 2018 over 1,200 were seen in the two count areas and 11 were sighted in the Big Hole. The invasive doves rapidly expanded from Florida where they successfully moved across the Atlantic from Bermuda in the 1980s clear to Alaska and into most of the lower 48 states.

You can easily track current and historical data on the National Audubon website at http://netapp.audubon.org/CBCObservation/CurrentYear/ResultsByCount.aspx.

The Stevi count annually competes with the other 33 counts circles in Montana for number of species seen.

We’ve averaged 70 species a year with a record high count of 90 in 2012 and over 7,000 birds counted. The Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge provides winter habitat for large flocks of waterfowl, as long as open water occurs. Over 158 species have been recorded in the Stevensville count circle.

Hamilton counters see an average of 67 species with a high count of 78 in 2013. The Hamilton area averages nearly 7,500 birds seen, many of them waterfowl on the Mansion Pond where open water remains available every year. We’ve recorded 133 species in the Hamilton circle.

Weather in the Big Hole severely limits the number of species and birds seen. The average number of species seen, 19, actually outnumbers the average number of participants by only one. But, it’s a great place for winter raptors and tundra birds that nest in Canada or further north.

Feeder watchers -- folks who identify the species and count the birds out their windows or in their yard -- annually add around 5 species not seen in the field at each of the Stevi and Hamilton counts. If you live within 7.5 miles of either the Hamilton Airport or the Stevensville Ranger Station you could help our citizen science project. Call John Ormiston, 360-9530 (Hamilton); or Dave Lockman (Stevensville), 777- 2929 to participate as a feeder watcher.

Please take the opportunity to enjoy a day out with a great group of people and help the effort to enumerate all the birds in three official National Audubon Christmas Bird Count Circles.