Thursday, May 15, 2014

Why We Count Birds At Silver Creek

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in a Friends of Silver Creek newsletter. It is republished here to mark the 10th anniversary of bird counts at Silver Creek Preserve. Read a Q&A about the author's birding experience over the past decade at

By Poo Wright-Pulliam, master birder and long-time Conservancy volunteer

It’s dark outside and I wonder to myself, “Do I really have to get up this early?” I can hear the coffee brewing…thank goodness, as I stumble into the kitchen for a cup. I’m not a morning person. So how did I become so involved with the birds?

When I was asked to help get Silver Creek Preserve dedicated as an Important Bird Area (IBA) I was thrilled and honored. I had been birding at Silver Creek for a number of years, it is my favorite spot. I was also in the middle of taking a class called “Master Birders” started by Kent Fothergill. One of the conditions for taking the class was to start a bird project, set it up and maintain it for the duration of the class. It also needed to be set up so that it could easily be done by someone else should we need to pass it on. Perfect! Silver Creek became my project, but I was quickly joined by my three birding buddies Dave Spaulding, Kathleen Cameron and Jean Seymour.

Bird count at Silver Creek Preserve. Photo ©Sunny Healey/TNC

We met with Colleen Moulton from Idaho Fish and Game to learn where the count would be done, the process is called a point count which means you stand in one place for ten minutes, count the birds you see and then move to the next point. There are about 10 points and originally we were only supposed to count the water birds but we knew well that there were many other birds that inhabited the area. We got our way and now submit every bird we see (yes, every one of them) once a month, rain or snow or glorious sunshine. Our first count was in June of 2004…and we haven’t stopped since.

Here’s why. Visualize a tiny Yellow Warbler darting in and out of a bush near the creek’s edge and listen as you hear the hatchlings chirping for their dinner. Watch a Brown-headed Cowbird quiver on a branch begging for food when who should show up to feed it but a beautiful Common Yellowthroat (one of its host species), a shocking event to watch happen considering the fledging is usually much bigger than the host parent.[1] Hear the cacophony of Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Rails and Ducks as the marsh awakens with the dawn. See the sun rise gold, pink and purple over Queen’s Crown. As Dave puts it, “It’s such a tough job, to get up in the dark and cold…and then see the sunrise, a 4x5 buck, the birds. It’s truly a magical time to watch the area come alive.”

Photo ©Stephen Barnard

Having the opportunity to experience a deeper connection to the cycle of the seasons and the interconnectedness of all living beings is extremely meaningful to Kathleen. Jean is an early riser and just enjoys every moment possible with the birds and wildlife, compiling everything she sees whether it’s counting at Silver Creek, banding birds for the Idaho Bird Observatory, or just going out for a jaunt. For me it’s a time for serenity...and amazement. I call it the “wow factor” because I can’t find the words to express it. I often find myself just standing there, all that comes from my lips is a long, slow “wwwooowwww!” We do it for science and the birds, but we get back much more…muchmore.

[1] Cowbirds make no nest of their own but lay their eggs in other species nest for them to raise.