Five Valleys Audubon Society hosts birdwatching trip

Audubon Field Trip 1

Photo by Tom Bauer, Missoulian

Missoulian article by Cameron Evans, March 23, 2019

STEVENSVILLE — Trumpeter swans and tundra swans are difficult to tell apart. Trumpeter swans are larger than tundra swans and the area where the bill meets the head is V-shaped on trumpeter swans but U-shaped on tundra swans.

Even experienced birdwatchers have trouble spotting the differences and the struggle to identify them can lead to disputes within birding groups.

Members of the Five Valleys Audubon Society, Missoula’s chapter of the National Audubon Society, went back and forth with each other over these differences as a pair of swans flew over cattails at the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge on Saturday morning.

Members of the group and newcomers peered through binoculars and scopes as they tried to get a closer look at the swans during the field trip. “They might be trumpeters,” said Jean Duncan, one of the chapter’s directors. “Well how can you tell when they’re flying like this?” said Larry Weeks, a chapter director who led the field trip. “They’re holding a sign saying ‘Larry’s wrong,’” said Alex Kearney, an attendee.

This type of playful banter is common in the birding world as “birders” try to identify as many different species as they can.

Weeks watched as the swans glided across the pond and came to a full stop before identifying them. He considered the time of year, noting it’s about the time that tundras migrate back. He also observed the swans bobbing their heads in the water, which ultimately helped him identify them as trumpeter swans.

Weeks has been leading field trips for the Five Valleys Audubon Society for over 15 years as a way to get people into the field and help them learn more about birds in the region. The group has several trips coming up, which Weeks said are open to members and nonmembers alike.

The group took a mental tally of the number of species they saw Saturday, which included red-winged blackbirds, trumpeter and tundra swans, sandhill cranes, an immature bald eagle, American tree sparrows, starlings, Canada geese and a variety of ducks.

“Anything that shows up with feathers, that’s what we’re after,” Weeks said.

The group also saw several tree swallows, which Weeks said was a first for the year as some birds begin to migrate back.

Weeks and other members who come to the monthly bird walks he leads on the third Saturday of each month are familiar with the best times to see different species.

Weeks said June is the best time for Montana birders to be on the lookout. This June, Weeks’ son will visit from Texas to try to break Montana’s record for a “big day.”

During a “big day,” a team of birders will set out to spot as many species as possible in 24 hours. Weeks’ son held the previous state record for 192 birds. He lost the title when another birder hit 197 birds, but he’s hoping to get it back this year.

On “big days,” birders will travel across the state identifying birds in a variety of ways, including by their songs and calls.

“You can take birding to all kinds of levels,” Weeks said. “Some people go for big years, big days. Some people go for how many birds they can see in the world. Like some people have gone up to 7,000 or 8,000 birds.”

Birders travel with a group to ensure accurate reporting, and to help each other identify birds.

Rose Stoudt, another director of the Five Valleys Audubon Society, said she doesn’t feel she has nearly as much bird knowledge as Larry, but she still questions him and others in the group.

“Accuracy is really important,” Stoudt said, adding that birders use sites like eBird to track their sightings.

The site, launched by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, is an online database of bird observations. The sightings that users submit create a crowd-sourced collection of data that scientists and researchers can use to keep tabs on populations.

Stoudt said accuracy is vital in the birding community. Diann Ward, a newcomer to the group, agreed and said group outings help foster accountability.

“That’s how the rest of us learn,” Ward said. “We listen to them and argue. Well, not argue, question.”

Around noon, the group convened in the parking lot for lunch and talked about a passerby who reported seeing an American pipit near the river. Naturally, Weeks dissented.

“I don’t know about that,” he said. “The American dipper would be a bird that you would expect down there by the river because they stick around all winter but I’m not sure what bird that was.”

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