December 17, 2022
The snowy parking lot along the LaValle Creek Road is framed by frosty branches and a gray blanket of fog this morning. I glimpse a Townsend’s solitaire as it flushes from the hawthorns, flashing the pale stripe in its gray wings. The solitaire flutters over the grassland of the hillside, then disappears back into the hawthorns of the draw. On the other side of the road, the trees of the dry forest rise up next to us, ponderosa pines and Douglas-firs. Occasionally we can hear the yank of a red-breasted nuthatch from the conifers. Farther from the road, aspen groves mix with the conifers along the creek. A lone raven perches in a ponderosa pine beyond them.
The mix of habitats in the LaValle Creek drainage is impressive – and we’re trying to cover the area thoroughly today, censusing birds as part of the Missoula Christmas Bird Count (CBC). I’m with Steve Flood, who has led the LaValle Creek segment of the CBC for four years now.
“You can essentially walk from sagebrush and bunchgrass, and in about a mile up here you’ll see grand firs,” Steve says.
Grand firs (Abies grandis) are moisture-loving conifers. You won’t find them around Helena, where the low-elevation forest is too dry for much except ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir. So in the LaValle Creek area, to be able to go from sagebrush to grand fir in such a short distance means that we’ve got a lot of habitat diversity. And hopefully, that will translate to a lot of birds today.
Moving up LaValle Creek
Steve and I are covering the upper portion of the LaValle Creek area. A team of three more birders – Andy Boyce, Adam Mitchell, and William Blake – are covering the lower half of LaValle Creek, where the habitat consists of open pastures and mature cottonwood forest along the stream. Originally, a single group tried to cover both areas – but splitting it in half gives us time to be more thorough.
“Now each group can do it much more leisurely, not feel like they’re having to hurry,” Steve says.
In spite of the nice-looking habitats we’re walking past – mature ponderosas and Douglas-firs, dense hawthorn thickets, smooth-barked aspen groves – the morning is off to a quiet start. Even the chickadees are muted in the fog, only making their sip contact calls. Since they aren’t giving their distinctive chickadee-dee-dee calls, we’re forced to listen and look extra-hard to try to distinguish black-capped chickadees from mountain chickadees.
The birds are quiet enough that we have time to ponder mammals as we ascend farther into the forest. We spot the tracks of weasels, snowshoe hares, a red squirrel, and a miniature bounding trail that is probably a deer mouse. The trail of a red fox merges with our own path for a time. And we know there are other creatures around, too.
“Every year we do this, there’s usually a pretty good herd of elk running around this basin somewhere,” Steve says.
A woodpecker near the ridge
Above us to the northwest is the ridge that marks the edge of the LaValle Creek watershed. This area is all privately owned, and the landowners have graciously given us access to count birds here for the CBC. We start following a sloping trail up the mountain through Douglas-fir forest with an understory of mallow ninebark (Physocarpus malvaceus). The tracks in the snow tell us that a weasel and a snowshoe hare have passed this way recently.
A red squirrel starts scolding us from high in the canopy. And then we start to hear a different sound from ahead of us. It’s a resounding, sporadic tapping, far too loud to be a nuthatch. A woodpecker is foraging. And from the sounds of it, it’s a large one.
“That’s really heavy hammering,” Steve says. “I think it’s a pileated.”
But foraging sounds can be trickier to identify than songs and calls. Is it really a pileated woodpecker? We locate the ponderosa pine snag where the woodpecker is hammering. But of course, it’s foraging on the far side of the tree, completely hidden by the trunk.
It’s so loud. It must be a pileated woodpecker, we think. Still, I start making a wide circle downhill, trying to see the far side of the snag without disturbing the woodpecker. The tapping falls silent. Then it starts up again. Finally, I see a head and a powerful beak attacking the edge of the snag. But this bird is way smaller than I was expecting, and its belly is white. It’s not a pileated.
Smaller than expected
“You aren’t going to believe this,” I tell Steve as I rejoin him farther up the slope and show him my photos. “It’s a hairy woodpecker!”
Steve’s expression shows just as much surprise as I felt when I saw the bird. We had both been almost sure it was a pileated. How can a bird as small as a hairy woodpecker make such a large noise?
“That’s a particularly resonant piece of wood!” Steve says.
We can see sun and blue sky by the time we reach the ridgeline. The valley is still filled with fog, but we’ve climbed above the clouds. The forest around us is open, with large Douglas-firs and ponderosas. It’s the sort of forest that might, possibly, support flammulated owls in the summer. One of these years, Steve hopes to return and check during the warm season for these rare, sensitive, moth-eating owls.
But in December, any flammulated owls are long-gone. In their place, we’re hearing the occasional kip-kip of a few red crossbills, drawn here by the conifer seeds.
“I had about a hundred crossbills up here last year,” Steve tells me.
Looking for owls, finding nuthatches
We’re following a fence line along the crest of the ridge now. Along the fence is a row of young, bushy Douglas-firs. Steve is peering into the firs with the razor-sharp intensity of a birder searching for northern saw-whet owls. Seeing him inspires me to do the same. But in spite of our best efforts, we don’t see any of these tiny, rodent-eating owls today. If we did, though, this is where we’d expect them.
“Whenever I find them, it’s a dense, limby patch next to an opening,” Steve says.
Past the Douglas-fir thicket, we notice a few recent elk tracks along the ridge. We can see the LaValle Creek valley unfolding below us. Steep, knapweed-covered hillsides blend into dense hawthorn thickets along the draws. Soon, we’ll be heading back down there. If we’re lucky, we may find a long-eared owl, a ruffed grouse, or some American tree sparrows among the hawthorns.
But we aren’t quite done counting birds on the ridge itself yet. We hear the hoarse calls of a single Clark’s nutcracker in the distance. Like the red crossbills, it’s probably finding conifer seeds.
Then a series of piping calls erupt from a massive ponderosa pine near us. Pygmy nuthatches! And they aren’t alone. A female downy woodpecker is tapping on a branch among the bright yellow wolf lichens (Letharia vulpina). She flies to the main trunk and continues feeding. Several white-breasted nuthatches are active here, too, almost twice the size of their pygmy nuthatch cousins. And not to be left out, three red-breasted nuthatches are flitting from branches to the main trunk and back again. These aren’t our first nuthatches of the day, but it’s exciting to see all three of Montana’s nuthatch species in a single tree.
What we see and what we don’t
We begin descending the knapweed-covered hillside, heading for the hawthorns. A few years ago, Steve found a flock of gray partridges on this hillside, but today the ranks of knapweed are still and birdless.
As always when birding, we’re paying close attention to the habitats we’re moving through. We’re noticing patterns and thinking about trends. It’s not just about what we are seeing today, but also what we aren’t.
“No flickers yet,” I comment.
“Yeah, that’s kind of bizarre, actually,” Steve replies.
He looks back up the hill, scanning the tops of the Douglas-firs for a perching red-tailed hawk. That’s another common bird that we haven’t seen yet today. And although we’ve played tag with flocks of mountain chickadees, black-capped chickadees, and nuthatches through the forest, we haven’t seen or heard a single golden-crowned kinglet today. It’s quite a contrast from the spruce-cottonwood forest of the Swan Valley, where two days ago golden-crowned kinglets were one of the commonest birds.
The hawthorns of LaValle Creek
We split up as we get to the hawthorns, one of us taking each side of the thicket. If one of us flushes a long-eared owl, hopefully the other one will see it. But the first thickets we check are silent. Except for an occasional black-billed magpie, the birds are absent.
It’s only when we’re checking our final hawthorn draw, approaching the parking area, that we start to find some more birds. All of a sudden, it seems like the chickadees are everywhere. There are 15 or 20 of them, all black-caps, darting out of the shrubs and landing in the spotted knapweed (Centaurea stoebe). It’s a familiar pattern of activity: it appears that the chickadees are hunting Urophora gall flies again. I stop to watch them more closely. They’re actually picking individual knapweed seedheads, breaking each one off at the stem. Then they return to the hawthorns to hammer at their catch, presumably extracting some juicy gall flies.
The chickadees aren’t alone here. We spot a few dark-eyed juncos twittering nearby. Steve sees them making forays into the knapweed, too. Are the juncos also eating gall fly larvae?
A subtle brown movement among the hawthorns alerts me to the presence of a ruffed grouse. I get a good look at its sweeping crest before the grouse fades back into the thicket, a brown shadow among the tangled branches.
A few American goldfinches perch briefly in the tops of the bushes, taking off with a cascade of musical perchicoree calls.
Snow buntings and other surprises
As we meander back towards the parking area, a few American tree sparrows call out their presence. We tally a few more chickadees and nuthatches, but nothing more unusual turns up.
As we drive down the road, we stop to compare notes with Andy, Adam, and William. What have they found among the cottonwoods and farm fields below us?
The lower LaValle Creek team has had a good day. Like us, they weren’t able to find any long-eared owls or northern saw-whet owls. But they found a prairie falcon perched along the hillside, a flock of snow buntings and horned larks among the cows of a feedlot, and several great horned owls close to the creek.
By the time we’re done birding for the day, it’s mid-afternoon. We haven’t managed to count every single bird in the LaValle Creek area – but between our two teams, we’ve done our best. The Missoula CBC isn’t over yet, though. From LaValle Creek to Kelly Island to McCauley Butte and beyond, teams of birders have been in the field today, combing Missoula for winter birds. What remains now is to tally up the results.
Some groups just send their lists to Larry Weeks, the count compiler. Others of us show up at his house in the evening for the CBC potluck. To me, this is one of the best parts of the day. It’s a chance to hear about the surprises everyone has found, consider how this year stacks up against others, and enjoy the company of other bird lovers.
At the potluck I see Don Jones, an excellent birder and wildlife photographer from Troy, Montana, who I last saw seven or eight years ago on the Troy Christmas Bird Count. He’s taking part in five CBCs across western Montana this week. Today, his group birded the area around McCauley Butte. One of their most surprising sightings was a blocky-headed raptor that appeared to be a Cooper’s hawk – an uncommon sighting during the winter. A much-smaller sharp-shinned hawk was dive-bombing it.
As the evening progresses, more surprises trickle in. Jim Brown reports finding a short-eared owl. One group found a marsh wren at Council Grove. Common redpolls, those arctic finches that can be abundant in some winters, were sparse today. But the group that checked Kelly Island found 12 of them there.
Winter finches appear to be down this year. No one tonight reports seeing Cassin’s finches, pine siskins, or pine grosbeaks. And between all of our groups, we’ve found just a few dozen red crossbills.
Conifer cones and other conundrums
Why? Don Jones reports that northern Canada is heavily loaded with cones right now, and the Finch Research Network confirms that the bumper cone crop is widespread in that area. The Canadian spruces look brown under the weight of their seeds. Don says that the trees there are loaded with white-winged crossbills. So is the scarcity of finches here related to better food supplies to the north? It seems very possible.
Larry Weeks is still waiting on a few more bird lists before he’ll be able to finalize the CBC results. But soon, we should know how this year’s CBC compares to almost 50 years of these counts in Missoula.
How are our birds doing? Are there less of them around than there were ten years ago? It turns out that questions like these are difficult to answer well. Bird populations don’t just trend smoothly up or down – they typically fluctuate from year to year, sometimes wildly.
Is it the cold and snowy winter we’re experiencing? Is it the availability of conifer cones or other food sources? How much has the day’s weather changed our counts? How many birds have we missed because we haven’t looked in the right places or listened closely enough?
Decades of Christmas Bird Counts
In short, counting birds is complicated. But since 1976, teams of experienced birders have been going out once a winter to conduct the Missoula CBC. It’s one of our best sources of data on our winter bird populations. And it’s especially important for the northern birds like American tree sparrows and common redpolls, which spend the summers in remote, hard-to-access areas. So how are our birds doing? Christmas Bird Counts like this one, conducted year after year for decades, will help us answer this question.
And in the meanwhile, we’ve gotten to spend a day with all three of our winter nuthatches. We’ve climbed above the foggy LaValle Creek valley and watched a hairy woodpecker sound impossibly large. We’ve gotten to see chickadees harvesting knapweed seedheads, and wondered whether dark-eyed juncos are doing the same. And we’ve gotten to be part of something much larger: a continent-wide search, involving thousands of volunteers, to check up on the health of our mid-winter birds. Whatever the answer, it’s fun to be part of this.