On a cold Wednesday morning, 18 birders and outdoor enthusiasts met at a café in Ennis to go out on the 54th annual Ennis Christmas Bird Count.
Winds waited to pick up until the afternoon, which was fortunate considering the cold weather they encountered. However, Ennis Lake was partially frozen, keeping waterfowl away. But still the group managed to count 56 different species of birds.
Other than last year, which participant Nate Kohler mentioned was an anomaly, he said this year’s Count was one of the best years yet.
Since 1958, when Dr. P.D. Skaar brought the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count to Ennis, folks have been bundling up and trekking out to different areas in a 15 mile radius around Ennis Lake. This year, there were five locations set that folks from Madison Valley, Bozeman, Livingston and Kohler, from Deer Lodge, staked out to listen for and spot every and any species they could in a 24 hour time span.
The Christmas Bird Count traces its roots back to 1900 when Frank Chapman, an officer with the newly formed Audubon Society proposed a holiday event that would have people count birds rather than hunt them, according to Audubon’s website.
The idea spawned from a concern that bird species were declining. Back in 1900, 27 groups around the country participated in the Count. Today, there are over 2,200 groups around the globe that carry out counts between December 14 and January 5 every year. Over 1700 are in the United States and 32 take place in areas all over Montana.
Robin Wolcott has been the compiler for the Ennis Count since 2009. This year, some of the standouts were the Merlin, Prairie Falcon and two falcons they were able to include. Seven Common Grackles were seen, something she mentioned was very unusual for a Christmas Bird Count. And no American Robins were spotted this year, another unusual occurrence.
Last year, Ennis ranked number one in “firsts” around the state. The local Count included four species new to the list, including the rare spotting of a Barn Owl. It was the first time the species had been included in the Ennis Bird Count and a rare sighting for the Madison Valley in general. This year, one owl was heard, which gets included in the Count since ‘sightings’ can include ‘hearings’ as well.
Still, frozen Ennis Lake hindered the counting of waterfowl species this year.
“We were here Tuesday scouting around and there were big bowls in the lake with lots of waterfowl,” mentions Wolcott. But by the day of the count, the water was all frozen.
The anomaly of 2012 was the big incursion of Finches. Redpolls were particularly abundant.
Wolcott says the high numbers of Redpolls are here “because the seed supply has suffered from the drought in the northern tier of the country, which pushes the finches south, into our turf.”
For example, last year the count was 65, while this year’s reached a total of 614. That will be reflected all across the state, according to Wolcott. They show up when conditions change. They are not here all the time and are somewhat nomadic. They are sure to be included in other Christmas Bird Counts elsewhere in Montana.
“It’s an irruptive,” or intrusive species, comments Kohler. “They will get counted two or three times.”
According to Audubon’s website, there is an irruption of Common Redpolls every other year.
“Bohemian Waxwings are another bird species that’s always here in the winter,” says Wolcott, “but you never know where you’re going to find them. They fly from one area to another.”
Next year’s Ennis Christmas Bird Count will take place on Dec. 18. Audubon encourages what they call “citizen scientists” to attend the free event. The more people at hand, the more birds can be counted.
The count provides data compiled for the Audubon Society in order to study the migration patterns and health of bird populations. It is actually the longest running wildlife census, according to Wolcott.
Anyone is welcome to join the Ennis Christmas Bird Count group or any others around the state. Madison Valley participants this year included David Hoag, Ian Root, Rachel Van Wingin, Lester Klatt, Joe Fontaine and Marina Smith.