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FLORENCE – If you know what you’re looking for, you start seeing the stunning and unmistakable emerald green and watermelon pink flashes everywhere.

What appear to be brightly colored tropical birds that are somehow lost in Montana are actually Lewis’ woodpeckers, named after explorer Meriwether Lewis. They are a species in decline across much of the country, but it turns out that they are thriving in riparian areas along the Bitterroot and Clark Fork rivers.

A group of researchers has been studying their habitat and habits this summer to determine exactly why they are doing so well here and what can be done to protect their way of life.

Megan Fylling, a graduate student in environmental studies at the University of Montana, has been coordinating a citizen scientist study of where the birds nest as part of her master’s degree project.

Kate Stone, a biologist at the MPG Ranch near Florence, a private conservation/research property, has been assisting Fylling with locating the birds’ nesting areas.

“The focus is to find out what it is that’s so important to them, and why they seem to be doing so well in this area,” Fylling said. “There does seem to be a lot of them here.”

The Lewis’ woodpecker is unique in that it is more of a fly-catcher than an excavator, meaning that the majority of its diet comes from flying around and snapping up insects. Most other woodpecker species forage for nuts and berries and other food sources. The Lewis’ woodpecker doesn’t have a powerful beak like other woodpeckers, so it depends on dead trees that are easier to excavate for its nest.

“A snag takes 100 years to make, so if you cut it down you’re kind of out of luck for a while,” Stone explained.

That’s where Amy Cilimburg of Montana Audubon comes in. She’s trying to raise awareness among landowners that snags and dead trees are vital habitat for these colorful creatures.

“Part of what we are doing, and we’ve had great success so far here in the Bitterroot and along the Clark Fork, is trying to let citizens and landowners know that these snags have value,” she said. “Some of these old cottonwoods are very valuable for not only Lewis’ woodpecker but many other species. (Lewis’ woodpeckers) also catch insects on the wing, and like all aerial foragers, help keep our bugs in check. They are really cool birds. And they’re really the only pink ‘watermelon’ bird around.”

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On Monday, the three researchers hiked down to the floodplain along the Bitterroot to study a few nesting sites with binoculars. Indeed, the birds were everywhere, flitting about before darting into their nests to feed their young.

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“I’ve seen more today than I have in my whole life I think,” Cilimburg said.

According to Fylling, the riparian habitat is formed by hundreds of years of the river meandering back and forth.

“Different floods over many decades create different ages of trees with a mix of snags and undergrowth with a lot of variability, which is perfect avian habitat,” she said. “I’m also going to do some GIS analysis, and look at whether urbanization affects either their productivity or their nest site selection.”

Montana Audubon has maps that show just how high a concentration of the birds live along the Bitterroot River.

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“Lewis’ woodpeckers are a species of conservation concern across the U.S., and what’s great is how many we have in this region, thanks to some healthy habitat,” Cilimburg said. “We find many along the Bitterroot and Clark Fork rivers in designated Important Bird Areas. They are just fascinating birds, and we’re so lucky to have so many here.”

There is a rush to find out about as many nesting sites as possible, because the young birds are beginning to leave the nests. Most Lewis’ woodpeckers will migrate as far south as Mexico for the winter, but a few are known to stick around and feed on nuts.

Fylling said she hopes she can recruit more volunteer bird enthusiasts, or citizen scientists, to help her locate nesting sites.

“They can just report to me where they’ve seen a woodpecker, or if they have a nest in their yard, I can get productivity data and see how many young they have in their nest,” she said. “Citizen scientists have helped in my effort to locate and ‘adopt’ nests for my master’s research, including one super-volunteer, Dr. Stephen Speckart, who alone has found nine nests. He has expressed to me how enjoyable the experience of nest-searching for Lewises has been and has been really glad for the opportunity to learn about the species and the river environment it lives in.”

The good part is, the birds are easy to spot when you know what to look for.

For more information, email Fylling at megan.fylling@mso.umt.edu. Learn more about living along rivers with native birds in mind in the Audubon guide “Our Birds Call This Home,” which details best management practices specific to the Bitterroot and Clark Fork rivers.

Reporter David Erickson can be reached at 363-3300 or at david.erickson@ravallirepublic.com.

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