HELENA – Fluttering snow and fluttering wings greeted about 60 birders participating in the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count on Saturday.
In 1900, Frank Chapman organized the first Christmas Bird Count in his publication “Bird Lore,” the predecessor to Audubon Magazine. Now 116 years later, about 72,000 birders, including 1,000 in 33 Montana counts, participate across the country, documenting populations and home ranges for thousands of species.
Last Chance Audubon has sponsored a Christmas Bird Count since 1973, splitting the Helena area into nine sections where smaller groups of volunteers venture to count as many birds and species as they can in a single day.
On Saturday, with overcast skies and sporadic snow flurries, seven birders visited about a dozen locations in Helena’s city limits. Keen eyes quickly found bird after bird, with species adding up quickly and topping 20 before noon.
Spring Meadow State Park produced a northern shrike, a flock of 500 waxwings and a raptor high in a tree, which could not be identified with complete confidence.
A visit to the Archie Bray Foundation grounds included a pair of flickers and a flock of grosbeaks.
The next stop along Park Avenue was teaming with chickadees.
Finally, a trip along Le Grande Cannon Boulevard below Mount Helena held feeders full of birds, including house and cross beak finches and a Eurasian Collared Dove.
Some species are easily identified while others require a preponderance of evidence to name with any confidence. Plumages, beaks and feet, along with distinctive flight patterns and familiar songs, can remove all doubt about a bird's species.
Experience and resources such as bird ID books and even several applications for mobile devices help birders make those positive identifications, explained birder Cary Lund.
“You’re only as good as your resource,” he said.
Patience is a key attribute in birding, and the Christmas count is set up so team members can complement each other, said Janet Ellis, Montana Audubon program director. One birder may have a special interest in raptors, while another on the team can meticulously identify waterfowl, she said.
“Montana’s bird list is 430 species, and I believe about 211, or about half, have been documented at some point in the Christmas count,” she said.
Winter means a drop in species diversity, although some Arctic species do consider Montana a southern point of their migration. Documenting 211 species is possible because of different weather from year to year, and species coming or going at those extremes, Ellis said.
Last Chance’s count averages between 50 and 60 species and nearly 11,000 birds, while Big Fork and Stevensville are typically tops in the state with more than 80 species because of open water for waterfowl.
Saturday's final count was more than 65 species.
“It’s interesting because one bird count probably won’t tell a scientist much, but what you get are trends over long periods of time,” Ellis said.
Lund agreed that having these counts, many going back decades, produced data impossible to get without the number of volunteers happy to brave the cold and snow to participate.
“Some of those early counts may have some suspect observations, like mistaking a Sandhill Crane for a Great Blue Herron, but it’s important to have this data over time,” he said.
The Christmas count has observed some species wintering farther north with warmer winters, while urban counts have seen significant increases in magpie and raven observations.
Different chapters approach the Christmas count differently, Lund and Ellis said. In Missoula, for example, the count is pretty regimented and formal. In Helena birders take it seriously, but it is also social and fun to get out with old friends and new birders, they said.
With many common species making up the bulk of the 22 observed in Helena by noon, the team had their focus ready for the afternoon sites.
“We’re missing some woodpeckers, and usually there’s a sporadic robin,” Ellis said. “But those are species you usually have to stumble on, and it just hasn’t happened yet.”