Monday, January 07, 2013

Christmas Bird Count

By Marilynne Manguba, Idaho Protection Specialist

Maybe you read the news in October - “Most of Idaho town destroyed by fire - six buildings burn in Howe.” I thought of the Little Lost Store and the restaurant next door, a traditional stop on the way out of camping trips into the Little Lost Valley or the west side of the Lemhi mountains. Both closed the last few times I’d been through Howe and at the time of the fire. Howe is a tiny little town between Arco and Mud Lake, essentially where three roads meet at the bottom of the Little Lost Valley. The last time I was there was in December 2011 for the Christmas Bird Count. Every year in December and early January, thousands of volunteers count birds on established routes all over North and South America. Historic data and information on how the data is used can be found on the Audubon website. In Idaho there are over forty routes, including one centered near Howe. So, if the town was essentially burned down, what happened to all those trees where a pair of Great horned owls have been spotted for many years?

2012 Christmas Bird Count in Howe, Idaho. Photo ©Marilynne Manguba/The Nature Conservancy.

This past Saturday, on January 5th, I left Idaho Falls at 7:30 a.m. with two Snake River Audubon Society members to do the 2012 Christmas Bird Count. The sun was just starting to come up behind the Tetons. As we drove across the desert, places where normally you’d see hawks hanging out on fence posts and utility poles were empty, we were the only ones crazy enough to be out moving around in -3°.

In Howe, the store and restaurant and other buildings are just piles of rubble except for some scorched bark on the bottom of a few trees - they survived. The only birds around were a flock of Eurasian collared doves, and an American kestrel just warming up in the sun near the Howe Community Center, where we met to warm up and discuss routes with the rest of the crew.

We searched the farmyards, fields and skies for birds as we drove up the Little Lost Valley to a little warm oasis in the cold desert, an open water pond where a bunch of mallards were hanging out. Just up the road a golden eagle perched on a pole and was soon joined by a second eagle. Song sparrows, marsh wrens, and as the veterans knew, Virginia rails who have been found hanging out in the cattails, reeds, and grasses of freshwater marshes. We then headed over to a farm pond where a bald eagle was keeping an eye on a bunch of mallards and green-winged teals. Checking the temperature it finally got up to 14° midday but the birds still seemed to be hunkered down with just a few songbirds, a great blue heron, and a Townsend’s solitaire spotted along the river road.

Volunteers at 2012 Christmas Bird Count. Photo ©Marilynne MangubaThe Nature Conservancy.

We spent the afternoon driving the farm roads between Howe and the mountains where we found rough-legged hawks, a Northern harrier, and a few prairie falcons. Then just as we were ready to head in we spotted a flock of bohemian waxwings and to cap the day off, about 150 common redpolls alternately swirling around and perching in a big cottonwood, bringing our species total to 28, not bad for a very cold day.
Red polls at 2012 Christmas Bird Count. Photo ©Marilynne Marilynne Manguba/The Nature Conservancy.

And the great horned owls, we finally spotted them perched in the cottonwoods behind what was left of the store and all breathed a sigh of relief to see them.
Great horned owl at 2012 Christmas Bird Count. Photo ©Marilynne Manguba/The Nature Conservancy.


Matt Miller said...

Great report, Marilynne!

George Henderson said...

Permission to add some of the nature pictures from this blog post to my hard drive?

Also neat article. I wasn't aware of the bird counting up north.