Jim Brown has lived in Missoula since 1965, when he began working for the Forest Service Fire Sciences Lab. In 1976, he helped found Five Valleys Audubon. On Saturday morning, he led a group into the field for the 118th Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count, an international citizen science project that is compiled into a data set at Cornell University.
To call it citizen science undersells the expertise of this particular group, which in addition to Brown includes Sneed Collard, an award-winning author of science-based books for young readers, and his son Braden, a freshman at Hellgate High who picked up binoculars after seeing the 2011 birding comedy The Big Year. Next year, Sneed will publish a memoir of his and Braden’s own big year in 2016, Warblers and Woodpeckers—A Father-Son Big Year of Birding.
Further adding to the group’s bona fides are Andrea and Don Stierle, chemistry research professors at the University of Montana who are internationally known for their work isolating medicinal compounds from organisms that live in the extreme acidity of Butte’s Berkeley Pit. Two years ago, the group spotted a Fieldfare thrush—the only group in the United States to see one, Andrea says—and birders flocked to Missoula from all corners to see the bird, which is rarely sighted in North America.
Friday’s snow had stopped and the overcast skies meant no sun glare. The 10 birders stopped several times on the way to their main count area. At one promising cattail marsh, Brown played bird calls from an app on his phone. A hoped-for Virginia rail failed to show itself, but three marsh wrens were added to the count.
The birders spent most of their day on private property in the Grass Valley, hiking about five miles round-trip across uneven frozen mud, and by the end of the day, they had 44 species on their list. The most common sighting? 151 mallards. The least common? prairie falcon, pileated woodpecker, redhead duck, northern shrike and Cooper’s hawk, at one each. Two short-eared owls were counted. “Often we are the only group to see a short-eared owl,” Brown said, stepping aside from his scope so others could have a look. “This is exciting!” said birder Hedwig Wright.
A duck hunter was in a blind near a pond in the field and for a moment, the decoys appeared to be actual ducks. “It’s hard sitting out there all day,” Wright said. “I used to hunt, too.” In fact, the Christmas bird count has its roots in a bird-shooting contest of the 1800s, in which groups would compete to see how many birds they could kill.
Brown said later that there were four species that only this Missoula group saw: marsh wren, prairie falcon, short-eared owl and redhead duck. Every bird logged becomes part of the data set referenced by researchers.
“When people report over this whole broad area, you come up with some meaningful data about species that are going downhill, you can see trends and identify species that are having trouble,” Brown said later by phone. “It’s an index to climate change, because we’re seeing more species are staying farther north than 30 years ago.”