Montana 2021-22 Christmas Bird Count #122

Montana Summary 26 April 2022 from Rosemary H. Leach

Total Counts Run and Total Species Found

In spite of Covid restrictions again this year, our data generally compared favorably with
past years. This year we tallied data from 30 count circles of our total 34. Three counts
did not run (Chester, Little Rocky Mountains, and Musselshell Valley) because of either
covid issues, lack of field participants, or bad weather. One circle—Cut Bank—has
been orphaned, and needs a new compiler and some hearty souls to renew the count.
If you can handle high winds and low temperatures, this might be the count for you.
Total number of species this year was—142 (Appendix 1), which equaled the average
of the total number of species from the past 7 years (CBC #115-121). This year we
added no new species to our cumulative state list of 221.

We had 7 Count Week (CW) birds this year that were not reported from any circle
during a count day, including Ross’s Goose (Bozeman); Long-tailed Duck (Missoula);
Red-breasted Merganser (Great Falls); Mew Gull (recent split, now Short-billed Gull but
still Mew Gull in the CBC database; the bird was found at Bigfork); Barred Owl
(Missoula); Gyrfalcon (Bigfork); and Gray Catbird (Missoula). Count Week birds were a
bit higher than past years, perhaps because the fall and early winter were unseasonably
warm in much of the state, and then the first sub-zero temperatures of the season
descended just as the count period began. At least some of the waterfowl moved on
due to iced-over ponds.

Bigfork had the high total count day number species for this year—90, followed by
Missoula at 89. The record for the state is still 98 at Bigfork (CBC #118). The fewest
species found was 2 at West Yellowstone (due to harsh weather) and 9 at Upper Swan
Valley. The average number of species found per circle this year was 50, which was 1
more than the average number of species seen from CBC #115-121. Even though the
number of circles reporting data each year ranges from 29 to 34, the average number of
species reported remains fairly constant.

Missoula had the highest number of participants at 125 (105 field participants and 20
feeder-watchers). The fewest—1—was at West Yellowstone, due to terrible weather on
their count day. The average number of field participants was 21,.
The total number of field participants (621) was about 13% lower than the average
from the 7-year period of CBC # 115-121 (711). This year’s total feeder-watchers (155)
equaled the average from CBC #115-121.

Total Individual Birds

We tallied 239,556 individual birds from 30 participating count circles this year. The
total individual birds seen was the 2nd highest recorded, after CBC # 115 (243,285,
Figure 1). This year’s total was 8% higher than the average number of individuals
seen for the period CBC #115-121 (222,540).

Similar to last year, this year’s relatively high total number of individual birds may have
resulted from better coverage of each circle, because teams were essentially arranged
by household, with no carpooling of large groups. That is, we found high numbers of
individual birds in spite of fewer circles reporting and fewer field participants.

Combining this information, we can see that even though the number of field
participants was below average (621 vs 711), the number of species recorded (142)
was average, and numbers of individuals recorded was the 2nd highest recorded. One
reason may be that participants have the local knowledge of where to seek out the
highest diversity of species and highest numbers of individuals possible. That is, we
had fairly good coverage of the circles, because we successfully found bird species and high numbers of individual birds, even though we had fewer field participants and only
30 of 34 circles running counts.

Another factor in explaining finding high numbers of individuals this year night be
because, well, there were more birds to find. To explore this notion, I looked at the
birds that numbered over 1,000 individuals (Figure 2) in more detail.

Quantifying Increases in Birds

I wondered, did the species with high numbers this year have banner years, or average
years and they are always high, or what was going on with them? To understand
trends, recall that we use the metric birds per party hour to be able to compare trends
for species across years. That is, raw numbers of birds is dependent on the amount of
effort used to find those individuals, so using birds per party hour standardizes our data
for comparison between and among years. For more information on this concept, see
the National Audubon CBC website.

To evaluate increases in bird numbers, I compared the current metric of birds per party
hour (that is, the total number of a species seen divided by the daytime effort for the
year) to the average birds/party hour on record, which is available at the National
Audubon CBC website.

Using this comparison, I found 16 species increased over 50% when compared to
their preceding average birds per party hour (Figure 3). Keep in mind that the number
of years averaged depends on the data available for each species, but generally the
data begins in the 50s to 60s for most species. A few highlights are discussed below.

This year 2 species—Snow Bunting and American Coot—increased in birds per party
hour by orders of magnitude, compared to their average from previous years. The
graphs for both species look similar in shape, so I present Snow Bunting to illustrate
both (Figure 4). Snow Buntings increased over 1,000%, compared to the average birds
per party hour from CBC #54-121.

American Coot increases (over 500% above average) were likely due to unseasonably
warm conditions prior to count days. At Ennis Lake, for example, about a third of the
area was ice free, such that the Ennis count tallied over 5,600 coots this year (Robin
Wolcott, Ennis compiler).

Most of the Snow Buntings from this year (around 6,000) were tallied from the Fort Peck
circle. John Carlson, the circle compiler, wondered if perhaps the birds were just more
concentrated this year. He had noticed that there were many grain fields left
unharvested from last fall (that is, there was not enough grain to mechanically harvest
the fields without losing money). If conditions allowed the grain to be accessible (so not
buried by snow), the birds may have congregated to take advantage of that food source.

Interestingly, although not as steep an increase as Snow Buntings, 2 other prairie
species also increased this year—Horned Lark (over 150% increase from average,
Figure 5) and Lapland Longspur (about 40% increase from average). These species’
numbers fluctuate widely from year to year, as depicted in the Horned Lark graph
(Figure 5).

Other Finch Species

This year also appeared to be a good one for most of our finch species, with American
Goldfinch leading the increases in birds per party hour, followed by House Finch,
Common Redpoll, and Red Crossbill (Figure 3). Three of these species were fairly
widespread, occurring on 26 (Common Redpoll), 24 (House Finch) and 20 (American
Goldfinch) count circles. Red Crossbill was found on only 14 circles. Oddly, Cassin’s
Finch, found on 10 counts, decreased about 60% from their preceding average birds
per party hour.

American Goldfinch and House Finch graphs both show a marked increase in numbers
and birds per party hour starting in the early 90s. American Goldfinch illustrates the
point (Figure 6). Even with adjusting the average to reflect only these more recent
years, both species still showed high increases from the average. American Goldfinch
increased 48% when compared to the average birds per party hour from the period
CBC #93-121, and House Finch increased 21% when compared to the average birds
per party hour from the period CBC #94-121.

Several other species showed the American Goldfinch pattern of gradually increasing
numbers to the 90s or so, followed by values that essentially cluster around a higher
average during some more recent time period (Figure 6). These include Canada
Goose, Northern Flicker, California Quail, Wild Turkey, Black-capped Chickadee, Red-
winged Blackbird, Cedar Waxwing, American Crow and Common Raven.

In contrast to the American Goldfinch graph shape, Common Redpoll, Red Crossbill,
and Bohemian Waxwing graphs show ups and downs centered around a relatively
stable average, similar to Horned Lark (Figure 5). This graph shape would be expected
for eruptive or nomadic species.

One finch Species—Evening Grosbeak—has decreased in numbers, compared to the
average birds per party hour from preceding counts (Figure 7), so the opposite of the
American Goldfinch graph. While the species did increase this year compared to last
year, their overall numbers are lower since the early 90s, when compared to period
CBC #60-89. The species is now considered IUCN Vulnerable.

Widespread Species

Common Raven was the most widespread species this year, found on 29 of 30
circles on their count days. Bald Eagle was the next most widespread species, found
on 28 counts on count day and 2 count week circles, so all 30 counts were
represented. They also showed a 56% increase compared to the average birds per
party hour from the early 90s to present (Figure 8). Bald Eagles have made a
remarkable recovery since the banning of DDT in 1972, but some individuals now face
new challenges from lead poisoning from lead fragments found in gut piles and other
carrion that eagles feed on. It will be important to see if widespread lead poisoning
might decrease their overall numbers going forward.

Species that decreased compared to preceding average birds per party hour

Some numerous (over 1,000 individuals recorded, Figure 2) species either showed
essentially no change from average (Black-billed Magpie), or decreased when
compared to their preceding average birds per party hour, including European Starling
(27%), Common Goldeneye (20%), Mallard (19%, Figure 9) and House Sparrow (15%).
The period for their averages generally ranged from the 40s or 50s through CBC 121.
Rock Pigeon was essentially unchanged when compared to the long-term, but had
about a 20% decrease from the recent period CBC #100-121. Ring-necked Pheasant
numbers decreased about 10% since the 80s.

In summary, some species with high numbers this year were also higher than their
preceding average birds per party hour metrics (e.g., Canada Goose, Bohemian
Waxwing). Three species were exponentially higher than their past average birds per
party hour (Snow Buntings and American Coot, and to a lesser extent, Horned Lark).
We can use Figures 2 and 3 to see that not all species with high numbers this year were
actually higher than their preceding average birds per party hour (Mallard, House
Sparrow, European Starling). Some species seemed to have increased in recent
decades, and had even higher averages this year, when compared to preceding
average birds per party hour (Bald Eagle, Cedar Waxwing, Northern Flicker). It appears
that at least 16 numerous species had essentially banner years this year (Figure 3).


Both Mourning Doves and Eurasian Collared-Doves increased in CBC 122, compared
to last year (Figure 10). Eurasian Collared-Dove numbers may be starting to flatten out
following an initial steep climb after they were first detected on counts in CBC #101;
they increased 7% over the period CBC #112-122. Mourning Dove numbers may also
be flattening out after high numbers reached during the early 2000s. Mourning Dove
numbers are still substantially higher than during the period CBC #48-98.

One question arises—why were Mourning Dove numbers so high during the early
2000s? I wonder if some Eurasian Collared-Doves were mis-identified as Mourning
Doves during the early part of that period. Before collared-doves were common and
observers were used to seeing them, the observers would not have been clued into the
presence of collared-doves and were likely not as adept at collared-dove identification.
It seems reasonable that at least some Eurasian Collared-Doves were mis-identified as
Mourning Doves during that time. But Mourning Dove numbers were still high in 2013,
so participants would have likely been able to correctly identify the species by that time.

It is also possible that more people were feeding Mourning Doves during winter in rural
portions of our count circles, and that winters have become more mild, so that some
Mourning Doves stayed in Montana, rather than migrating south of Montana during
winter. This combination of factors could account for the high Mourning Dove numbers
that started in the early 2000s (Dave Lockman, Stevensville CBC personal
communication). We would need to mark summering Mourning Doves in Montana to
see if this change in migration pattern has occurred.

Rare and other Species of Interest

This year, we had few unexpected species. No warblers were found. Yellow-rumped
Warblers have occurred regularly on our CBCs, often on the Billings count. No
bluebirds of either species were found this year. We did have some ‘scarce but
becoming regular’ species. Missoula tallied 3 Anna’s Hummingbirds. This species
has been found on 3 previous counts, 1 bird from Billings (Dec 1982) and twice at
Missoula (2 birds in Dec 2001, and 1 bird in Dec 2020). The birds were associated with
feeders, as has been the case with recently-overwintering individuals of this species.
This year, Bozeman reported a Lincoln’s Sparrow with convincing details. The
species has been found during 12 past count years (starting in the mid-70s), but it is
unusual enough and hard enough to identify so that reports still need appropriate
documentation. We had 9 Lesser Goldfinches from 3 counts—Hamilton 1, Kalispell 2,
Missoula 6, and a count week bird from Bigfork. We also had 3 Lewis’s Woodpeckers
(Missoula 1, Stevensville 2). Both of these species have become somewhat reliable in
recent years.


This year we found 7 owl species on count day and an additional species during count
week, for a total of 8 of the 13 potential owl species that occur in Montana during the
winter. Two were relatively abundant—91 Great Horned Owls from 15 count circles
and 25 Short-eared Owls from 5 circles. The other species were in single digits and
included 2 Great Gray Owls from 2 circles, 2 Snowy Owls from 1 circle (Fort Peck)
plus 2 count week birds from 2 others; 9 Northern Pygmy-Owls from 6 circles, 2
Northern Saw-whet Owls from 1 count (Missoula), and 5 Long-eared Owls from 3
circles. The 1 CW bird was Barred Owl at Missoula.

The average number of owl species (count day plus count week birds) from CBC #115-
121 is 8.6, so we were close to average during this year.

This year we missed Eastern and Western Screech-Owl, Barn Owl, Northern Hawk Owl,
and Boreal Owl—which has only been found on 2 counts (Dec 1981 at Glacier National
Park and Dec 2006 at Missoula). We would not expect Burrowing Owl on Christmas
Bird Counts, because it is a summer breeder only in Montana.

Other Raptors

This year, Rough-legged Hawks (783 birds from 24 circles and 1 count week bird)
narrowly out-numbered Red-tailed Hawks (779, from 24 circles). We found an
additional 35 Harlan’s type Red-tails from 10 circles, and 5 Ferruginous Hawks from 3
counts (all 3 east of the divide). We found all possible falcons (American Kestrel,
Merlin, Prairie, and Peregrine) plus a count week Gyrfalcon (from Bigfork). Our least-
likely winter falcon—Peregrine (because most migrate from Montana during winter)—
was found on 1 count and 1 count week circle. Care must be exercised when
identifying falcons during winter here. One Osprey with convincing details was reported
from Bigfork.


This year produced the expected gull species—Ring-billed, Herring, and Glaucous, but
only 1 California Gull (Fort Peck) and 2 Lesser Black-backed Gulls, 1 each from Helena
and Fort Peck. Lesser Black-backed Gulls are getting to be regular each year in low
numbers. Bigfork had a count week Mew (Short-billed) Gull, which is possible in winter
but not found every year.

Thanks to all of our volunteers, and we hope to be out again next year without Covid
restrictions and without high winds and deep snow.

Appendix 1. Species tallied during Montana Christmas Bird Count # 122

  1. Snow Goose
  2. Ross’s Goose
  3. Cackling Goose
  4. Canada Goose
  5. Trumpeter Swan
  6. Tundra Swan
  7. Wood Duck
  8. Gadwall
  9. American Wigeon
  10. Mallard
  11. Blue-winged Teal
  12. Cinnamon Teal
  13. Northern Shoveler
  14. Northern Pintail
  15. Green-winged Teal
  16. Canvasback
  17. Redhead
  18. Ring-necked Duck
  19. Greater Scaup
  20. Lesser Scaup
  21. Long-tailed Duck
  22. Bufflehead
  23. Common Goldeneye
  24. Barrow’s Goldeneye
  25. Hooded Merganser
  26. Common Merganser
  27. Red-breasted Merganser
  28. Ruddy Duck
  29. California Quail
  30. Ring-necked Pheasant
  31. Gray Partridge
  32. Ruffed Grouse
  33. Sharp-tailed Grouse
  34. Wild Turkey
  35. Common Loon
  36. Pied-billed Grebe
  37. Horned Grebe
  38. Eared Grebe
  39. Western Grebe
  40. Double-crested Cormorant
  41. American White Pelican
  42. Great Blue Heron
  43. Osprey
  44. Golden Eagle
  45. Northern Harrier
  46. Sharp-shinned Hawk
  47. Cooper’s Hawk
  48. Northern Goshawk
  49. Bald Eagle
  50. Red-tailed Hawk
  51. Rough-legged Hawk
  52. Ferruginous Hawk
  53. Virginia Rail
  54. American Coot
  55. Sandhill Crane
  56. Killdeer
  57. Wilson’s Snipe
  58. Mew (Short-billed) Gull
  59. Ring-billed Gull
  60. California Gull
  61. Herring Gull
  62. Lesser Black-backed Gull
  63. Glaucous Gull
  64. Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)
  65. Eurasian Collared-Dove
  66. Mourning Dove
  67. Great Horned Owl
  68. Snowy Owl
  69. Northern Pygmy-Owl
  70. Barred Owl
  71. Great Gray Owl
  72. Long-eared Owl
  73. Short-eared Owl
  74. Northern Saw-when Owl
  75. Anna’s Hummingbird
  76. Belted Kingfisher
  77. Lewis’s Woodpecker
  78. Downy Woodpecker
  79. Hairy Woodpecker
  80. American Three-toed Woodpecker
  81. Black-backed Woodpecker
  82. Northern Flicker
  83. Pileated Woodpecker
  84. American Kestrel
  85. Merlin
  86. Gyrfalcon
  87. Peregrine Falcon
  88. Prairie Falcon
  89. Northern Shrike
  90. Gray Jay
  91. Pinyon Jay
  92. Steller’s Jay
  93. Blue Jay
  94. Black-billed Magpie
  95. Clark’s Nutcracker
  96. American Crow
  97. Common Raven
  98. Horned Lark
  99. Black-capped Chickadee
  100. Mountain Chickadee
  101. Chestnut-backed Chickadee
  102. Red-breasted Nuthatch
  103. White-breasted Nuthatch
  104. Pygmy Nuthatch
  105. Brown Creeper
  106. Canyon Wren
  107. Pacific Wren
  108. Marsh Wren
  109. American Dipper
  110. Golden-crowned Kinglet
  111. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  112. Townsend’s Solitaire
  113. American Robin
  114. Varied Thrush
  115. Gray Catbird
  116. European Starling
  117. Bohemian Waxwing
  118. Cedar Waxwing
  119. Lapland Longspur
  120. Snow Bunting
  121. American Tree Sparrow
  122. Dark-eyed Junco
  123. White-crowned Sparrow
  124. Harris’s Sparrow
  125. White-throated Sparrow
  126. Song Sparrow
  127. Lincoln’s Sparrow
  128. Spotted Towhee
  129. Red-winged Blackbird
  130. Western Meadowlark
  131. Yellow-headed Blackbird
  132. Rusty Blackbird
  133. Brewer’s Blackbird
  134. Common Grackle
  135. Brown-headed Cowbird
  136. Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch
  137. Pine Grosbeak
  138. House Finch
  139. Purple Finch
  140. Cassin’s Finch
  141. Red Crossbill
  142. White-winged Crossbill
  143. Common Redpoll
  144. Hoary Redpoll
  145. Pine Siskin
  146. Lesser Goldfinch
  147. American Goldfinch
  148. Evening Grosbeak
  149. House Sparrow

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