Montana Public Radio

Three French Hens, Two Turtle Doves, And One Christmas Bird Count

Dec 17, 2018

Lou Bruno likes to watch birds, but he calls himself a lazy birder. Especially when he’s at his home in East Glacier during the summers, looking out over a beaver pond.

“I know all the bird songs in my area," he said. "So my way of birding is I go out with my cup of coffee, sit on the bench, and I just tick off what’s around me.”

The 73-year-old started birding when he was a kid. And when he started working as a teacher in Browning, he was able to spend summers leading birding trips around Montana. After he retired, he started leading them in Mexico and Alaska.

And in the last 40 years he’s also gotten involved in Christmas Bird Counts all over the country.

Lou Bruno scans a field for birds at Council Grove State Park during the Christmas Bird Count in Missoula.
Credit Rosie Costain

“I’ve had some pretty rigorous bird counts," he said. "You know, like 25 below and the wind blowing like 30, 40 miles an hour. That was in Great Falls. That was an interesting one. And the leader said to me, ‘Why don’t you ever bring proper clothes for these trips?’ And I said, ‘Because I’m never stupid enough to be out in this kind of weather.’”

The Christmas Bird Count, currently underway across the Western Hemisphere, involves a little more work than an average day of bird watching at home.

It’s a 119-year-old citizen science project run by the National Audubon Society. It acts as a census for birds.

There are over 30 counts in Montana, including the Five Valleys Audubon Society count in Missoula. About 100 people organized into small groups in Missoula on Saturday and spread out across a 15-mile-wide circle, centered where Reserve Street and I-90 cross.

Bruno was a part of a nine person group that started the day at Council Grove State Park.

They made their way through dried grass and tall pine trees, walking on a bed of soft needles covered in crunchy snow. And above the footsteps, train whistles, and barking dogs, people listened for bird song and called out species they saw.

Bruno was in charge of the bird list, adding tally marks next to names to keep track of which species and how many of each were identified.

The leader of this group, Paul Loehnen, made Bruno the keeper of the list.

“He asked me to do it last year, so I did. So now I’m stuck with the job,” Bruno said.

Mike Krzywicki flips through a bird guide as most of the group monitoring Council Grove State Park work with him to identify a type of junco.
Credit Rosie Costain

Bruno had to be sure not to double count, and every new bird sighting required discussion from the group to make sure it was properly identified and not already seen or heard by someone else. If there’s any uncertainty, it doesn’t count.

Over the next two weeks, from December 14th to January 5th, this will be happening all over the U.S. Different communities chose the one day they’ll hold their count during that period and organize volunteers. Some people are out in the field. Others stay at home and watch their feeders.

They monitor the same 15-mile wide circle every year, marking down each bird they can see and hear.

The results provide data on winter ranges of birds and their populations.

The project requires a knack for quick and accurate observations, which is something Boo Curry is good at.

She works at the University of Montana Bird Ecology Lab.

At 30-years-old, she’s one of the younger participants in this year’s Missoula count. But she wishes she started birding when she was even younger.

“Probably since college, I’ve been into birding," Curry said. "And I kind of regret it because I’ve gone a lot of cool places when I was younger, like Costa Rica or Southern Africa and I wasn’t into birding then. And now I’m kind of kicking myself that I wasn't because I could have ID’d a lot of cool species.”

There’s still a chance to do that in Missoula, and there’s a hope something interesting will pop up.

But finding that something interesting requires covering a lot of ground. The group split up to try to flush birds out of a few different sloughs.

After spotting some juncos, mallards and magpies, everyone moved to a nearby bridge overlooking the Clark Fork River. It was supposed to be a good spot for waterfowl.

Finally, with a few less members, they made their way to a privately owned piece of land along the river filled with juniper bushes and ravens. Overall, they covered about 5 miles.

And that is deserving of a potluck.

Larry Weeks hosts it in his basement, filled with a hodgepodge of tables, chairs and food. Weeks is the compiler of the bird count. That means he was in charge of organizing the 17 groups and various feeder watchers in Missoula. He’s also in charge of putting together the final bird tally.

At the end of the day following the Christmas Bird Count, 25 of the participants gather at Larry Weeks' house to work on a final tally.

Once everyone finishes eating, the counting starts. Species by species, Weeks reads through a list and people shout out the number they saw.

They end up with over 80 kinds of birds. Weeks says that’s typical for what they’ve seen the last few years. But up from the 70 or so they used to get, now that more people are participating.

“It’s always a challenge to get that 80 or 80-some birds," he said. "There’s a competition of trying to get the most birds of any of the counts in Montana. And Bigfork is normally the top dog every time. We can’t compete with them because they got Flathead Lake. So any time we can get 80, that’s a good count.”

Weeks did his part to add to that number. The 80-year-old’s trip up a mountain toward Snowbowl to find dusky grouse wasn’t as successful as he hoped.

“I spent three hours walking up that hill in snow up to my knees and didn’t get the dusky grouse," he said. "But anyway, I tried.”

But he did find three Pacific wren up Grant Creek. And other birders received a verbal “gold star” for spotting a white-winged crossbill and a northern goshawk during the day.

As Weeks gets the rest of the data from the feeder watchers, he’ll add up a final tally. Then, he’ll send it off so it can be used to form a better picture about birds in Montana and across the Western hemisphere.

In the meantime, counts are still taking place. Find out how to join one here.