Christmas Bird Count reveals plethora of species

By: 
Nate Howard
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They’re making a list and checking it twice. They’re gonna find out who’s common and who’s rare at the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count. 

But first ... It’s trivia time!

How many species of birds did the Livingston bird watchers participating in the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count find? 

What is the fastest animal in the world that spends time in Park County?

And when did Livingston first submit its Christmas Bird Count for the Audubon Society? 

On with the story:

On Sunday, local bird watchers visited several bird “hot spots” within a circle containing 177 square miles, with the center roughly a mile east of Livingston. 

Some took to the mountains in Paradise Valley at Suce Creek, some went north into the Shields Valley and some peered at bird feeders through the comfort of Julie Barton’s windows inside her Livingston home.

The annual count is a tradition that dates back to 1900 in New York City and is considered the oldest citizen-based scientific study.

The late Urana Clarke is credited with the current Livingston designated region, and in 1996 received the Montana Audubon Educator of the Year Award. 

And now, for the birders. 

The birders have 24 hours to find birds. With their field work complete, they gather at George Kelly’s home in Livingston to compile their counts. 

Kelly, the official “compiler,” is happy with the results this year — 61 species have been identified. 

The bird count information reveals not only the health and diversity of a population but also reflects changes in ecology. 

Kelly sees more golden eagles now. He has a theory as to why that goes back to the food chain diagram learned as young students: With more predators — mainly wolves in the Yellowstone ecosystem — there are more elk and deer carcasses. Golden eagles feast on these carcasses, creating a higher population. 

High numbers are not always welcome. Perhaps most abundant at the feeders is a bird that was not to be found in Montana until 20 years ago — the Eurasian collared dove, an invasive species, and as for sightings of the native mourning dove, zero. 

As birders gathered around Kelly’s kitchen table with notebooks in hand, it was a bit like opening gifts on Christmas morning. 

The official count recording takes place with local birder Ed Harper reading off a list of birds considered “likely” to see. As the list is read, birders welcome interruptions. Forrest Rowland, a professional birding guide, chimes in with, “You’ll need to add ...,” noting a few species that are categorically rare and otherwise not mentioned on the list.

Many birders use apps on their phones to track their sightings. The apps also present abundant information on each species, including their range. 

Notable on Sunday was the sighting of the common redpoll, weighing in at pocket change — or two nickels and a penny — and standing 14 centimeters tall. With snow and freezing wind blowing, the little bird has reached its southernmost boundary, in Montana, where it was seen perched at one of Barton’s bird feeders. 

And now, the answers. 

• Sixty-one species counted. 

• The fastest animal in the world is the peregrine falcon which can be seen throughout Montana. It dives at 200 mph. 

• Sacajawea Audubon Society volunteer Secretary John Edwards found the first entry from a Livingston Christmas Bird Count, dating to Dec. 26, 1910.

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Reach Nate Howard at photo@livent.net.

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