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Big bird saves the day

| March 24, 2024 12:00 AM

A half-hour into the Saturday adventure, the day looked to be for the birds — in every way.

When we walked in earlier to the Lone Pine State Park visitors’ center, AmeriCorps program specialist Eryn O’Brien greeted us with a hearty, “Are you guys big birders?” She took our “no” in stride, and provided the ground rules for the Great Backyard Bird Count. 

There was just one: Spend at least 15 minutes this day in mid-February counting birds. 

“This is a great event,” she said. “We didn’t invent it — it’s happening all over the world.” The data on the sightings would inform scientists’ understanding of global bird populations before one of the big migrations.

According to the event’s website, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society started the count in 1998 as “the first online participatory science project … to collect data on wild birds and to display results in near real time.”

AmeriCorps education specialist Gracie Jauch nodded nearby. She had helped set up exhibits for the day. Formerly a kayak guide in South Carolina, Jauch was a month into her Montana assignment. She said, “I have just as much to learn today as everyone else.”

Although O’Brien was new to birding, she took to it with gusto. “It gives a chance to slow down. I really started learning and listening,” she said. “It’s hard for us to sit quietly.”

She schooled us in birds of the area. She mentioned eBird Mobile and Merlin Bird ID as apps that can help identify birds in the field through qualities such as color, call or flight pattern (swooping, gliding, or flitting, for example). 

O’Brien detailed the difference between downy and pileated woodpeckers and black-capped versus mountain chickadees. We learned that woodpeckers have long tongues that wrap around their heads to act as a shock absorber, that some birds walk up trees upside down, and about birds that come with other conditions.

“When I see magpies,” she said, “I’m looking for dead things.”

Armed with identification guides and binoculars we set off to count for the cause. Fittingly, it was a bluebird day, clear and cold. 

We picked the Cliff Trail — no birds in this quiet forest. We veered over to Raptor’s Rest Trail, thinking for sure it would lead to birds. We stopped and stood stock-still. We trained our binoculars on stands of ponderosa pine. We periscoped our heads around. 

Birds seem to be everywhere, except when you want to count them. 

At last, we notched two black-capped chickadees. We heard some other birds chirping, then diving out of sight between trees. But to see them long enough to identify and count, that was another matter.

At a bench along Valley View Trail, we stopped to admire Kalispell and the mountains. The snow underfoot glistened like sugar. The homes beyond were overwhelmingly taupe. 

The day hadn’t been a total loss, thanks to the chickadees. Maybe it just wasn’t a big time for birds.

As we packed up to go home and took a long last look at Big Mountain, a bald eagle blew across the view. You didn’t need binoculars to see it.


Margaret E. Davis, executive director of the Northwest Montana History Museum, can be reached at mdavis@dailyinterlake.com.