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.
This type of playful banter is common in the birding world as “birders” try to identify as many different species as they can.
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.
The group also saw several tree swallows, which Weeks said was a first for the year as some birds begin to migrate back.
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.
“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.
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.”