A Spring into Birding: The 25th Annual Bird Count for World Migratory Bird Day

By ROB RICH

 
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"Five and seven (that's twelve), plus seven (nineteen)…thirty," said Sharon Lamar, whose quick mental math earned her a role in summation. “Thirty red-winged blackbirds, last chance," I called, feeling like an auctioneer, then scribbled yet another species to our list. But we weren't selling anything away: we were accounting for the priceless gift of the birds who have returned with the spring. By the end, in admirable tribute to World Migratory Bird Day, Swan Valley Connections' volunteers counted 64 separate species and 656 individual birds across the upper Swan Valley!

That's not too shabby for our 15 birding participants, or for the season so late in coming. Counting independently or in pairs, most people started from where they live, then expanded in favorite routes through a combination of walking, driving, and gazing through binoculars. And listening! If you know the song, a vocal performance is just as valid as a sighting, and our birds were certainly musical in our morning survey hours. Ruby-crowned kinglets sung out from practically every pine and fir, their excitable voices far outsizing the fidgety bodies hidden in the treetops. It wasn't too surprising that they lived up to their regal name, topping the tally with 72 counted.

 
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Most Heard Bird: ruby-crowned kinglets are ubiquitous in the Swan Valley right now. Photo Credit: Brian E. Small/VIREO, Audubon Field Guide

 

There are 160 birds known to occur in Swan Valley (110 known to breed), and it was also somewhat expected to find our highest abundance and diversity in aquatic habitats: loons and goldeneyes fishing open water; cranes, geese, and swans dabbling through marshes; even a dipper and spotted sandpiper daring to probe along the raging Swan River. Alex Hughes and Kellyn Fusfield, two excellent birders who journeyed up from Missoula, found particular success around Holland Lake and its wetlands.  

But the unexpected keeps birders curious, and as we shared encounters around two picnic tables at the Condon Work Center, each of us was intent for someone to name the first western tanager, the first Swainson's thrush, the first black-headed grosbeak. None yet. But contributions like Russ Abolt's evening grosbeaks got fawning ooohs and ahhhs, provoking our wonder as to why some birds come to particular places earlier than others nearby. We had no certain answer, but the microclimates in this valley – with wide variations in temperature, forest and aquatic habitat, and precipitation – are part of birding's intrigue. Our count made clear that being a birder is not merely about becoming expert in names, but also cherishing the bird-in-place, and learning the adaptations that allow them to thrive there.

This was the 25th year birders from the Swan Valley have conducted this census, and these long-term observations provide valuable insights that inform how and why we conserve this landscape. Over the next month, all the avian migrants should be back in full song and breeding plumage, and I’m betting Swan Valley birders could find over 100 species in their finest hour!

If you want to practice with any of the birds (and their songs) named here, be sure to search the Audubon Field Guide or the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds site.

 
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Most Wanted Bird: western tanagers should be returning to the Swan Valley sometime soon – from central Mexico and Costa Rica! Photo Credit: Glenn Bartley/VIREO, Audubon Field Guide