Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Bird Count

Last Saturday, the 18th of December, bird watchers across Billings participated in the annual Christmas Bird Count. This year over 25 people gathered at seven AM to organize themselves into groups and head into the field for eight hours of bird-watching. The Christmas Bird Count occurs between December 14th and January 5th across the Americas. This annual tradition has been occurring for over 100 years! As I learned from the National Audubon website, "Beginning on Christmas Day 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman, an early officer in the then budding Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday tradition-a "Christmas Bird Census"-that would count birds in the holidays rather than hunt them. So began the Christmas Bird Count. Thanks to the inspiration of Frank M. Chapman and the enthusiasm of twenty-seven dedicated birders, twenty-five Christmas Bird Counts were held that day. The locations ranged from Toronto, Ontario to Pacific Grove, California with most counts in or near the population centers of northeastern North America. Those original 27 Christmas Bird Counters tallied around 90 species on all the counts combined." (Retrieved from

The information gathered from the bird count contributes to bird science and conservation efforts. Changes in regional bird distribution trends have been documented through the data collected by thousands of citizen scientists each year. An interesting find in Billings this year was the presence of several thousand American Robins (see photo above right). As I learned from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds website, "Although robins are considered harbingers of spring, many American Robins spend the whole winter in their breeding range. But because they spend more time roosting in trees and less time in your yard, you're much less likely to see them. The number of robins present in the northern parts of the range varies each year with the local conditions." Perhaps this year Billings' late, warm fall encouraged more robins to stay here than usual. Or perhaps we are seeing the beginning of a longer-term trend. Time, and more annual counts, will tell.

Darcie Vallant, the Audubon Center Director, recorded a first for her life list on Saturday. She spotted a Townsend Solitaire by the Yellowstone River in the Heights. A long-tailed gray bird of the high western mountains, the Townsend's Solitaire descends in the winter to lower elevations where it feeds almost exclusively on juniper berries. Her group also observed every raptor that lives here at this time of year. These included Bald Eagle, Kestrel, Merlin, Harrier, Prairie Falcon, Red-Tailed Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk, and Golden Eagle.

Participants gathered at Helen Carlson's house afterward for home made soups, cookies, and cider. Helen coordinated her annual competition to see who could guess how many ornaments she had on each of two trees. The winners this year were Phil McBride and Bernie Quetchandach. Congratulations to the both of them! And thank you to everyone that spent a day participating in this important citizen science effort!!

Thursday, December 9, 2010


Friendship House 2nd and 3rd graders spent an afternoon this week looking and listening for owls on Norm's Island with Teacher Naturalist Adam Sundstrom. Adam introduced the students to the great horned owl, Bubo virginianus, in the classroom by showing them the wings and talons of a real owl. The class discussed the adaptations that help owls to be excellent hunters. They use their sharp feet (talons) to grab prey (usually small mammals like mice, though the great horned owl is the only animal that regularly eats skunks!). The feathers on their wings are fringed on the leading and trailing edges. This breaks up the wind as it flows over the feather, making for nearly silent flight so that owls can sneak up on unsuspecting small mammals. Additionally, the dish-shaped face of the owl helps to gather sounds, similar to the way a satellite dish gathers TV signals. The "horns" on the great horned owl are not its ears, they are actually just feathers. The ears of the owl are offset on the sides of its head (one side is higher than the other), which helps the owl to determine the precise location of prey. Oftentimes we see dogs tilt their head back and forth when they are listening; in doing so they are using the same principal of sound triangulation.

Armed with a portable wildlife caller that plays owl calls and mouse distress signals, the students headed to the field. As the evening approached and skies darkened, the students kept their eyes fixed on the trees, looking for camouflaged owls in the branches. When Adam played the owl's call, the students listening silently with the hope that owls would call back to the group. We didn't have luck this time, but we have seen great horned owls on the Island in the past and we'll keep looking. With luck, a pair will nest on the island sometime in February.