December 15, 2022
The Swan River slips gently under the snowy bridge where the Cold Creek Road crosses it. A pileated woodpecker flies past, its heavy kakking calls echoing into the distance over the snow-shrouded cottonwoods and Engelmann spruces along the river. In the cottonwoods, we can hear a mixed flock of black-capped chickadees and golden-crowned kinglets, calling busily as they forage. One of the chickadees gives its fee-bee song briefly. It’s a reminder, here in the depths of winter, that spring is coming. By March, the chickadees will be singing much more, staking out their breeding territories.
This morning I’m near Condon, Montana, counting birds with Mary Shaw, an avid wildlife watcher and a board member for the nonprofit Swan Valley Connections. We’re one of a handful of teams conducting the Upper Swan Valley Christmas Bird Count (CBC) today. Like CBCs all over the Americas (primarily North America), the goal is simple: count all the birds we can find in one day within a fixed 15-mile diameter circle. Between December 14 and January 5 each winter, about 2600 CBCs take place across the United States, Canada, and Latin America.
The first CBCs took place in 1900, and the number of them has been growing ever since. They’re fun community events, but they’re also one of our best sources of long-term data on the populations of North American overwintering birds. Based on CBC data, we can see patterns over the last 50 years – and sometimes farther back -such as the relative stability of overwintering American robin populations, the steady decline in western meadowlarks wintering in the United States, and the northward shift of pine grosbeaks as the climate changes.
A river runs through it
Between the trees, the snow is a few feet deep here in this mostly forested valley. Among the conifers, we can expect to find flocks of chickadees, kinglets, and nuthatches: the usual forest birds. Otherwise, we’re expecting the birds to be clustered in just a few areas today. Here along the river, where the open water provides opportunities for food and shelter, we’re hoping to find some ducks and perhaps an American dipper. The highway can be another surprisingly-attractive spot for winter birds. Roadkills can bring in bald eagles, dozens of ravens, and sometimes golden eagles.
But so far, the river hasn’t been as active as we were hoping. We can see some whitish-yellow branches in the stream, neatly stripped of their bark by the local beavers. But as far as we can see in either direction, neither ducks nor American dippers are visible on the water.
We debate about whether to hike farther along the river. Swan Valley Connections has loaned us snowshoes to navigate the deep snow. And there’s a good chance we might find some mergansers or other ducks somewhere along here.
“Well, I love hiking,” Mary says.
Birding by snowshoe
We wade through the snow, stumbling occasionally over fallen spruce logs. We stop several times to scan the river, but the water remains birdless. Soon we begin to wander deeper into the forest, attracted by the soft sip calls of a few chickadees.
It’s another flock of black-capped chickadees, at least five of them making these soft contact calls as they glean acrobatically among the spruce needles. In the winter, chickadees hunt for spiders, insect eggs, and larvae. They also feed on fruits, seeds of goldenrods and conifers, and sometimes the fat of animal carcasses.
By 9:40, we’ve meandered back towards the Swan River. Still no ducks. Mary and I decide to split up. She’ll follow our snowshoe trail through the trees, back toward the bridge. Meanwhile, I’ll bushwhack along the edge of the river, hoping to find some more birds. We’ll meet at the car in just over half an hour.
I make my way along the riverbank, passing a spruce hanging out over the water. Suddenly, I’m surrounded by birds. It’s another mixed winter flock. Golden-crowned kinglets, black-capped chickadees, and mountain chickadees are moving through the spruces. The sips and dees of the black-capped chickadees mix with the softer twitters and whispers of the golden-crowned kinglets. Occasionally a mountain chickadee gives its raspy, sore-throated call.
Black-capped and mountain chickadees are our two most common species of chickadees in Montana. In the wetter forests towards Idaho, it’s also possible to find the gorgeous chestnut-backed chickadees. But according to Eli Estey, the leader of this CBC, chestnut-backed chickadees are very rare here in the Swan Valley.
Black-capped and mountain chickadees are easy to tell apart. Mountain chickadees give notably raspier calls, sounding as if a black-capped chickadee has a very sore throat. These birds also have a white line running through their black cap, just above the eye. The top of a black-capped chickadee’s head, on the other hand, is all-black. Black-capped chickadees give the familiar chickadee-dee-dee call, without the raspiness of the mountain chickadees.
The mixed flock fades away as unexpectedly as it came. Flocks like this are a common winter sight in the conifer forest. But that doesn’t make them any less magical.
Mary and I arrive back at the bridge at almost the same time. We still haven’t seen any ducks. But now, a belted kingfisher is perching in a cottonwood over the water, scanning for fish! The extra time along the river has been worthwhile.
Willows, ponderosa pines, and nuthatches
Our first stop of the day is done. Now we drive across the highway and walk a stretch of a snowy road through an extensive complex of beaver wetlands near Condon Creek. The wetlands are almost entirely frozen.
A light breeze is picking up now, brushing past the willow thickets and cattail stands. It’s entirely quiet except for the occasional croak of a distant raven and the construction noises from a house along the road. I’m almost positive there must be some song sparrows hiding in these willows. But as we walk along, the quiet prevails. These common, hardy sparrows aren’t showing themselves today.
Soft gray clouds hang low over the valley as we stop near Condon Creek itself. We don’t see any song sparrows here, either, though a trickle of open water gurgles under the bridge. But right along the road, we hear a nasal yank call. We spot two red-breasted nuthatches, twittering softly as they inch down a small ponderosa pine trunk. They’re just feet away from us, so close that I can see one of them removing seeds from the bark of the pine.
What are these seeds doing here, anyhow? How did they make their way from the cones overhead to the bark of this trunk? It turns out that, like their cousins the pygmy nuthatches, red-breasted nuthatches are well-known for caching food items. Some researchers suspect that these birds focus on caching food early in the day, retrieving many of these hidden food items later in the afternoon to build up fat for the cold winter nights.
Back to the river
So far today, we’ve seen or heard 13 species of birds. It’s a remarkable contrast from the summer landscape. In June, we’d be hearing dozens and dozens of species in these trees and around these wetlands. But in spite of the quiet, there’s still something lovely about being out in the winter forest. And the sparse birds only serve to make each encounter more special and to highlight the special places where we find them.
“I just want to keep doing this all day!” Mary tells me. “Even though there aren’t very many birds, this is fun.”
But by now it’s 10:45, and we’ve agreed to meet back up with the other birders at noon to compare notes. We decide we still have time to drive a few miles north to the Salmon Prairie bridge, where we’ll be able to check another stretch of the Swan River.
There aren’t ducks here, either. But an adult bald eagle is perching in a cottonwood. I can hear another mixed flock of songbirds moving through the western larches behind us. There are a few mountain chickadees, some more golden-crowned kinglets, and a couple of red-breasted nuthatches. Then a hairy woodpecker flies past, giving its sharp peek! call.
As we’re driving back toward the highway, Mary spots a lone wild turkey walking methodically across a pasture. She tells me that she sees them commonly in this area.
A dipper in the current
We have just a few minutes remaining before we need to head back to Condon for our noon meeting. On our way, we decide to check the Cold Creek Road bridge one more time. It turns out to be an excellent idea.
The belted kingfisher we saw here before is gone. But in its place, a compact gray bird is bobbing rhythmically at the icy edge of the river. It’s an American dipper! The dipper plunges elegantly from the ice into an eddy. It swims low in the water, like a muskrat, a purposeful gray bird leaving a gently spreading wake.
The dipper flies across the river in front us, giving its tough, wiry call inches above the ripples. It lands on the snowy bank, bobbing once again, then leaps back into flight. This time, it lands in the main current and rides the river downstream, spinning in circles like a phalarope. And, playful though it seems to be, this dipper’s movements have purpose, too. As it drifts down the current, I watch it snap up what appears to be a caddisfly larva.
We meet up back at the Swan Valley Connections interpretive center in Condon. We’re joined by Amber Langley, who birded an area near Loon Lake and Hemlock Point by cross-country ski this morning, and CBC compiler Eli Estey, who covered some areas south of us near Falls Creek Road. Compared to CBCs that take place in more populous areas, which can sometimes involve a hundred or more participants, this one is a tiny affair. It’s just the four of us covering what we can of the count circle, plus several observers who are counting the birds around their homes today.
Like us, Amber and Eli have had quiet mornings. The most common birds have been ravens, chickadees, and golden-crowned kinglets – the familiar standbys of winter in the conifer forest. We discuss the birds we haven’t seen today. None of us have seen the winter finches – red crossbills and pine siskins – that we might hope to find in this forested valley. These finches are notoriously mobile, following good crops of conifer seeds from region to region. Nor have we found any common redpolls, northern finches that feed on birch and alder seeds during the winter. Why?
From the Swan Valley to the boreal forest
In the case of the crossbills and pine siskins, at least, there seems to be a straightforward explanation. According to the Finch Research Network, there is a bumper crop of spruce cones north of us this year. Spruces in northern British Columbia and the Northwest Territories are loaded with cones. Presumably, they’re also loaded with winter finches. Meanwhile, in the Swan Valley, the finches are sparse or absent.
This year-to-year variability in winter finches serves to highlight the importance of CBCs like this one. Changes in bird populations are often much more complicated than just simple declines or increases. And to study changes in creatures that can move thousands of miles, it takes an effort like this, something that is geographically extensive and long-lasting.
It’s been a typical winter day in the conifer forest of the Swan Valley: a deep, snowy quiet punctuated by the sudden appearances of mixed-species flocks of chickadees and kinglets. A belted kingfisher, a bald eagle, and an American dipper have reminded us of the bird diversity that the river hosts, even in the middle of winter. The absence of winter finches here has connected us to observations of heavy spruce cone crops 1500 miles away. We’ve waded through deep snow, seen red-breasted nuthatches retrieving seeds, and made some new friends. And we’ve added a few more observations to over a century of data on how North America’s wintering birds are faring.
Ghalambor, C.K. & T.E. Martin (2020). Red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis). In Birds of the World Online (P.G. Rodewald & F.B. Gill, editors). Ithaca, NY: Cornell Lab of Ornithology. https://birdsoftheworld.org/
Grubb, T.C., Jr., & T.A. Waite. (1987). Caching by red-breasted nuthatches. Wilson Bulletin 99(4):696-699. Retrieved from https://sora.unm.edu/sites/default/files/journals/wilson/v099n04/p0696-p0699.pdf
Hoar, T. (2022). Winter finch forecast 2022-2023. Finch Research Network. Retrieved from https://finchnetwork.org/winter-finch-forecast-2022-2023