99 species and, yep, they’re still counting: This Boise Christmas tradition is for the birds

Birders collect valuable data during the annual Boise Christmas Bird Count

Groups of volunteers and researchers identify birds and count their numbers during the Christmas Bird Count in Boise.
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Groups of volunteers and researchers identify birds and count their numbers during the Christmas Bird Count in Boise.

If the early bird catches the worm, the hopeful birdwatcher must be even earlier.

That’s why Rob Miller, a research biologist with Boise State University’s Intermountain Bird Observatory, was in the Boise Foothills at 5 a.m. on Saturday, donning a headlamp and layers of fleece to defend against the 20-degree December chill. In the darkness of the early morning, he spotted the barred owl he’d glimpsed in the Hulls Gulch area a few times before.

The birds aren’t uncommon in Northern Idaho, but it’s a bit of a treat to catch sight of one in the Boise area. And on Saturday, it was an especially important sighting — it would become part of the record in Boise’s 52nd annual Christmas Bird Count.

The Christmas Bird Count — sometimes shortened to “the count” by birders — is a 119-year-old birdwatching census, started in the northeastern United States in 1900 as an alternative to traditional holiday hunts. In 2015, it took the title as the longest-running citizen science survey in the world, providing valuable long-term data for hobbyists and researchers alike.

Miller was greeted with excitement from a small group of birdwatchers huddled outside Idaho Fish and Game’s office on Walnut Street before the sun rose on Saturday. It was only 6:30 a.m., and he had already confirmed several species for the count.

Within half an hour, 50 people would gather in the Fish and Game Trophy Room to divvy up birdwatching territories before heading into the field for the day, eager as kids on Christmas morning.

Making it count

In each of the dozens of places where it’s held, the Christmas Bird Count is the same: Birdwatchers spend the day traversing a “count circle” 15 miles in diameter, counting the species and number of birds they find. Both unusual and common species become exciting for the birdwatchers to draw into view to be tallied.

Counts always take place between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5, and any sightings within three days of an area’s official Christmas Bird Count day can be recorded as part of official tallies, which are reported to the National Audubon Society.

In Boise, the count circle’s center is the statehouse, with 14 zones reaching Dry Creek to the north, Lucky Peak to the East, several miles past Gowen Road to the south and nearly to Eagle Road to the west.

The Boise count started in 1967. There are also counts in Nampa, Bruneau, Cascade, Garden Valley, Hagerman and McCall.

Jay Carlisle, reseach director at Boise State’s Intermountain Bird Observatory, joins volunteers for the annual Christmas Bird Count in the Treasure Valley. He uses a popular birding app on his smart phone to voice bird calls to help reveal species and numbers. He pointed out that this is the only time of year he uses the recordings, when birds are not territorial and won’t be agitated by rivals. Darin Oswald doswald@idahostatesman.com

“The Christmas Bird Count gives you a chance to bird more thoroughly in a place you might normally pass by,” said Jay Carlisle, research director for the Intermountain Bird Observatory. Alongside wildlife biologist Robert Magill, Carlisle helped coordinate and compile this year’s Boise count.

For years, Carlisle, 46, has covered section 8 of the count circle, the western-most section which includes the Hyatt Hidden Lakes Reserve off Chinden Boulevard. Though most of the territory is filled with housing subdivisions, Hyatt’s marshes offer a bounty of species, from the white-crowned sparrow to the great blue heron.

On Saturday, Carlisle, his wife, Heidi Ware Carlisle — also a bird expert with the Intermountain Bird Observatory — and 18-year-old birder Lucian Davis weaved through the trails at the reserve. They tallied scores of Canada geese and mallards, and they played bird calls from an app to try to draw out elusive Virginia rail from the reeds they like to hide in.

Carlisle doesn’t usually play calls when he’s birdwatching — during breeding or nesting seasons, it could almost be considered harassment to try to stir the birds up, he said.

“For the Christmas Bird Count, all normal birding goes out the window,” Carlisle said.

He stopped on a ridge to watch cedar waxwings swarm for berries on a juniper tree. They’re common, but Carlisle eyed the flock for signs of Bohemian waxwings, a less common cousin.

“[Common birds] are more interesting today because of the Christmas Bird Count,” Carlisle said. “How many are there, you know? It heightens the experience, which makes it more fun.”

He stopped mid-sentence, straining an ear for call of a lesser goldfinch (“They have that mournful sound”) or the scolding tsk of a junko. When the reserve fell silent, Carlisle would imitate calls himself, replicating the pish pish of a sparrow or the trill of a robin.

‘The finer details of birding’

For researchers like Carlisle and his wife, Heidi Ware Carlisle, the Christmas Bird Count is an invaluable resource.

Jay Carlisle and his wife Heidi Ward look for species and numbers of birds at Hyatt Hidden Lakes Reserve in Boise Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018 during the annual Christmas Bird Count. Darin Oswald doswald@idahostatesman.com

“There are a number of publications that have relied on the Christmas Bird Count because it’s a very rich data set,” Carlisle said. “It’s helping us understand ... how different things affect these bird populations.”

RL Rowland, a birdwatching hobbyist and longtime compiler for the Boise count, said the census can be a real canary in the coal mine for bigger issues like climate change and habitat destruction. Common birds may be absent on count day, like Downtown Boise’s peregrine falcons, which weren’t spotted Saturday, while the presence of unusual birds, like the golden-crowned sparrow Rowland’s group spotted, could signal something different.

Rowland had seen a juvenile golden-crowned sparrow last year. The one he sighted this year had adult plumage.

“Is it the same bird?” Rowland wondered. “Could it be wintering here each year, or has it been here the whole time?”

It may not always be fun — as part of his section Saturday, Carlisle donned a hard hat and weaved through smelly pools at the Boise WaterShed wastewater treatment plant off Joplin Road to count geese, ducks and one solitary mew gull — but it’s important. After hours in the field, Carlisle staked out one final spot at dusk with his telescope to count blackbirds and starling that fly in for the evening to a communal roost.

“It’s the finer details of birding,” Carlisle said. “But it was the right thing to do to get the accurate information for the count.”

His efforts paid off. He identified the only yellow-headed blackbird and brown-headed cowbird of the day.

Getting in the Christmas Bird Count spirit

Though it’s important to the research community, the Christmas Bird Count is not just about science. It brings its own elements of the holiday spirit and camaraderie to the birding community, which includes the Golden Eagle Audubon Society and Southwestern Idaho Birders Association.

For Rowland, it was a chance to watch another birder come into her own. Amanda Sills didn’t hesitate to make the call when she spotted a rare Harris’s sparrow for the first time. It’s that kind of confidence that’s needed for the count, when a single positive ID can mean so much.

“It was a call,” Rowland said. “People are putting their two cents in and having it acknowledged. I was there when she got it on her own, and that makes it special for me, too.”

Birders celebrate one another’s “life birds” — the first sighting of a new species — and enjoy friendly competition as they try to track down unique finds.

“It’s fun to see how much it means to people, but it’s also a lot less valuable and useful without those people,” Carlisle said. “It’s a community-reliant count.”

For Carlisle, the count even dictated his holiday plans. He celebrated Christmas with family in Connecticut at the beginning of the month, early enough to be back in Boise in time for the count.

“Some of these people I honestly see once a year,” he said. “It’s always fun to see that we have this common interest in birds and bird populations. And you rally — it’s like, ‘How did we do this year?’”

By Monday morning, the Boise tally was up to 99 species, slightly above average for the count (Nampa hit an area of record 110 the previous week). Because Saturday was the official count day, the last day for Boise-area sightings to make the tally is Christmas Day.

Carlisle was still hoping for a rare sighting to complete his Christmas Bird Count: a tiny gray-crowned rosy finch, seen only a handful of times in the decades of Boise counts.

It would take some snowfall in the mountains to push the birds down from their alpine winter habitat, but holiday storms could make it happen. Carlisle said he’s satisfied with this year’s census numbers, no matter what Christmas Day brings.

“The Christmas Bird Count is one of the things with the holiday season that I look forward to every year,” Carlisle said.

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Nicole Blanchard is the Idaho Statesman’s outdoors reporter. She grew up in Idaho, graduated from Idaho State University and Northwestern University and frequents the trails around Boise as much as she can.