Birders flock to Montana festival

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BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) — With mountain bluebirds, it’s all about location, location, location.


“They’re almost like real estate agents,” quipped Paulette Epple, secretary of the Sacajawea Audubon Society.


A female bluebird will check out a male’s nesting locations thoroughly before deciding if one meets her standards.


Early on a sunny Monday morning, Audubon Society leaders shared their passion for birds on a stroll through Bozeman’s Cherry River state fishing access. Just over the I-90 freeway from Wal-Mart, it’s nestled where North Seventh Avenue makes its big turn toward the airport.


There, less than a quarter mile as the crow flies from concrete and commercialdom, is a little piece of bird heaven with clean ponds and cattails, willows and bushes, next to the East Gallatin River. It’s one of 16 birding “hot spots” listed by the local Audubon Society.


The birders spotted pelicans and Canada geese, red-winged blackbirds, a great blue heron, a belted kingfisher and a lazuli bunting almost as blue as a bluebird.


Some birds have nicknames. Common yellowthroat warblers were called “little ninjas” for the black masks they appear to wear. For their raucous cries, Lou Ann Harris calls yellow-headed blackbirds “screaming yellow zonkers.”


This is the best time of year for bird watching, said Loreene Reid, local Audubon president. From May to the end of June, they’re breeding, migrating and at their most colorful.


More and more people are flocking to birding. The Sacajawea chapter has grown by more than 100 people in the past year, from 420 to 540 members.


Reid said she thinks it’s growing rapidly because the chapter is active – offering more classes, better field trips and the chance to make a difference as citizen scientists — counting birds in sensitive habitats and documenting “important bird areas” or IBAs.


“We’re upping our game,” Reid said with a smile.


Bozeman has an “incredible” number of nearby bird-watching areas, from Kirk Hill, to the wetlands off East Main Street near the freeway, where sandhill cranes have been spotted, to Headwaters State Park, where one can see peregrine falcons and owls.


Bozeman itself will be a birding hot spot this weekend when the Montana Audubon Society holds its 15th Wings Across the Big Sky festival here for the first time.


Nearly 400 Montanans are expected to gather at the GranTree Inn. They will attend scientist John Marzluff‘s lecture on the evolution of crows and humans, compete in an “American Idol” style bird-calling contest, and participate in 39 field trips, said Harris, festival co-chair.


It’s not your typical convention, Epple said, when hundreds of people are excited to get up at 5 a.m. for field trips.


“People can go for a hike in the mountains and maybe see one mammal,” Epple said. “But if you’re a bird watcher, you see them all around, and the world is a much richer place.”


Montana is big-time bird-watching country. A 2001 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report found that 44 percent of Montana adults participate in bird-watching – twice the national average of 22 percent – making Montana No. 1 in the nation.


Its widespread popularity may owe to the fact that Montana has such charismatic species as bald eagles, golden eagles and trumpeter swans.


“The dawn chorus” is what she loves, Harris said. “At very first light, there’s a complete cacophony of bird song, a symphony of bird song.”


The Sacajawea chapter holds an annual birdathon celebration and fundraiser in July. Birders record all the birds they can see within 24 hours. Prizes are awarded for the rarest or best birds, newest birder, or who can count the most magpies.


“I’ve had people get up with tears in their eyes, saying, ‘It was the best day of my life,'” Reid said. “It’s so much fun.”


They listed three types of birders. Those just out for pure enjoyment, like Reid, don’t “give a darn” what birds they see, they’re just glad to be out.


“In today’s world everything is so hurry, hurry, hurry,” she said. “Don’t you feel calm, relaxed here?”


Harris said she leads bird watching for cancer support groups, because just getting out in nature helps get people through cancer and treatment.


Then there are competitive birders – “hard-core listers” – determined to see how many birds they can record in a day — a type of birder that’s becoming less common.


And then there are growing numbers of “citizen scientists,” who care about conservation. Harris, for example, is one of the people who monitor the bluebird trail of 100 nests north of Bozeman.


“We want to get everyone involved so birds can be around for our kids and grandkids,” said Steve Hoffman, Montana Audubon‘s executive director. “It’s all about habitat.”


Having healthy bird populations depends on having healthy grasslands, shrub lands, river bottoms and forests, Hoffman said.


“They are the ultimate canary in the coal mine for the planet,” he said.


Hoffman had just returned from leading a bird-watching trip to Red Rocks Lakes National Wildlife Refuge near Yellowstone Park. A lot of novice birders came, and they saw 120 species.


“It’s so cool to watch this whole world of birds open up to them,” he said.


One of the Sacajawea chapter’s biggest annual events is the Bridger Raptor Festival, held the first weekend in October. It centers on the raptor migration over the Bridger Mountains, called the largest golden eagle migration in the country. Golden eagles have declined 40 percent in the last 15 years, Hoffman said, and there are no clear answers why.


Local Audubon volunteers have participated in reintroducing trumpeter swans, once close to extinction, back into the Madison Valley.


Sacajawea chapter members are also working on developing a nature trail at Headwaters Park. And they have also launched a “war on burdocks,” a noxious weed with Velcro-like seed heads that can snare songbirds, trapping them until they die. In August a small army of volunteers chops off the seed heads, bags them in plastic and buries them in the landfill.


“We’re workhorses,” Reid said. “We’re definitely the largest volunteer conservation organization in our area.”


One bird that’s definitely not threatened is the magpie. Bozeman birders counted 1,162 magpies in the 113th Christmas bird count, which probably makes this the largest year-round population of magpies in the country.


Many people seem oblivious to the birds around them. A woman walking her dog without a leash came ambling by on the Cherry River trail. The birders politely told her they’d appreciate it if she kept her dog on a leash, that this is a nature preserve and the state sign says dogs must be leashed.


Oh, the woman said, but my dog is under voice control. She was apparently unaware, the birders said, that when dogs run loose through the bushes, they flush out hidden ground-nesting birds and their broods.


It was the only off note in an otherwise relaxed morning. The birders didn’t even flinch when asked about the unflattering stereotype of birdwatchers.


“We don’t wear pith helmets,” Harris said.


“I think we’re all proud of being bird nerds,” Reid said cheerfully. “We’re a fun birding group. We will accept any birder, no matter what their character defects.”


Technology is making it easier to be a birder. There’s lots of information about bird watching in the Bozeman area on the Sacajawea Audubon and Montana Audubon websites, as well as MOB, the Montanans Outdoor Birding site.


There’s also an “eBird” smartphone app that lets volunteers report bird sightings.


They’re on Facebook, too, Reid said.


“And,” she said, “we tweet, of course.”


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