Printed on: December 27, 2012

Counting beaks

Audubon finds a record 66 species of birds in Idaho Falls area

By J.E. Mathewson

It was a popular Christmastime tradition more than a century ago -- taking part in a Christmas bird count by dividing into teams and shooting as many birds as one could find.

Birders and members of the National Audubon Society, specifically Frank Chapman, found the tradition barbaric and proposed an alternative: Divide into groups and count the birds instead of shoot them.

The first Audubon Christmas Bird Count was held Christmas Day 1900. It's become the longest-running citizen science wildlife survey in the world.

Over the years, the annual survey has grown in strength and numbers. From Dec. 14 to Jan. 5, members of groups located throughout the U.S. and Canada count every bird they find within a 15-mile area.

Kit Struthers, a member of the Snake River Audubon Society, said bird counts were held in Rexburg, Idaho Falls and Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

In Idaho Falls, the bird count was Saturday.

Struthers said that, on average, birders find about 50 species of birds in the Idaho Falls area. This year, even more were found.

"It went much better than we thought it would," Struthers said. "When we don't have much snow, we don't have many birds. But we had 66 species, which is a record high for us."

In 2007, 64 species were identified in Idaho Falls.

This year, Audubon members counted 20,829 individual birds. Members found two pinyon jays by Freeman Park, Struthers said, a rarity in eastern Idaho -- especially during the wintertime.

They also identified four barn owls.

"We don't always get (the barn owls)," she said. "Another really rare one was the chipping sparrow. There are plenty of them in the summer, but they usually migrate and aren't usually around in the winter at all."

Audubon member Darren Clark said 74 species were identified during the Rexburg count.

"That is pretty high for Rexburg," he said. "We had really good numbers of trumpeter swans and bald eagles."

Clark said the high count most likely was due to the weather staying warm throughout the fall.

"(During the count) we still had a lot of open water and more duck species than we usually do," he said. "There wasn't snow on the ground, so we were able to drive and get into (harder to reach) areas."

Someone reported seeing a great gray owl; Clark said that's also a rare sighting for the time of year. Some people, Clark said, aren't aware that eastern Idaho is home to many birds during the winter.

"This is their winter home, birds from the Arctic that come, spend the winter here," he said.

During the count at Craters of the Moon, Mark Delwiche had the same opportunity as Audubon members who did the Rexburg count -- to drive on roads usually closed for the winter. Delwiche said he has been participating in bird counts since the early 1970s.

"Rain or shine, snow, ice, whatever, we go," he said. "You don't know what you're going to see. All day long you think that rare bird is just about to show up any minute now."