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The Christmas Bird Count in Blaine County is scheduled for Sunday, Jan. 3.

    People seeking a break from the resort bustle this winter can immerse themselves in nature by participating in a bird count, birding walks and animal tracking workshops. Bird counters contribute to the National Audubon Society’s collection of scientific data, and local birders and trackers learn about the wonders of animal survival in the winter.

Christmas Bird Count

    According to the Audubon Society website, the first count occurred on Christmas Day, 1900, in response to the popularity of holiday-time hunting contests. An Audubon Society ornithologist proposed counting birds rather than killing them. The count has been held every year since, and now takes place in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia, as well as in 20 other countries, including Canada and Mexico.

    Each count takes place in a 15-mile-diameter circle, and is organized by a count compiler. Count volunteers follow specified routes within the circle, counting every bird they see or hear all day. It’s not just a species tally—all birds are counted, giving an indication of the total number of birds in the circle that day.

    “It’s a quick snapshot of what the birds are doing in the winter,” said local count compiler Poo Wright-Pulliam.

    Each one-day count takes place sometime between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5.

    The local count will be held Sunday, Jan. 3. The counting area centers on Picabo, in the southern part of the Wood River Valley, and stretches west nearly to state Highway 75, north to the Little Wood Reservoir and southeast to Silver Creek Preserve.

    Wright-Pulliam is recruiting volunteers, and said beginning birders can join a team that includes at least one experienced birdwatcher. She said counters will meet at 7:30 a.m. at the Silver Creek Convenience Store in Picabo. They will form teams and spread out in different directions to count every bird they see before they return to the store at 4:30 p.m.

    Wright-Pulliam said counting will involve both driving and walking. Participants should bring lunch and binoculars if they have them, though she said she has several pairs she can loan.

    She said people can just show up on the count day, and teams will be formed then. However, she said, she appreciates advance notice at 788-3903.

    Anyone whose home is within the boundaries of the circle can stay at home and report the birds that visit their feeder on count day, as long as they have made arrangements with the count compiler.

    Wright-Pulliam said the local count usually identifies 60 or so species. She said birds seen in the area include many species of ducks, trumpeter swans, several species of hawks, falcons and owls and smaller birds that include colorful waxwings, juncos and rosy finches.

    “We always hope to find something out of the ordinary,” she said.

    According to the Audubon Society website, the area of Idaho with the most species counted last year was Bruneau, in the southwest corner of the state, with 104 species.

    The Audubon Society reported that worldwide, last year’s bird count was the sixth straight record-breaking count in terms of participation—2,462 circles covered (54 more than the 2013-14 count), with 1,888 in the United States, 460 in Canada and 114 in the Caribbean, Latin America, Bermuda and the Pacific Islands.  There were 56,000 people counting in the United States—49,604 in the field and 6,405 feeder watchers—who counted nearly 65 million birds.

    There were 3.5 million birds counted in Canada and nearly 430,000 elsewhere.

    The 2014-15 count identified 2,106 species, roughly one-fifth of the avian taxa on Earth, the Audubon Society noted. Counters saw 655 species in the United States and 305 in Canada.

    Once again, the circle in the U.S. that contained the most species was Matagorda County-Mad Island Marsh, Texas, at 234 species. Yanayacu, Ecuador, led the way in Latin America with 529 species.

Bird walks

    For those who can’t make the Jan. 3 event, Wright-Pulliam also leads monthly winter bird walks, hosted by the Environmental Resource Center, at Silver Creek Preserve. Exact dates and times have not yet been decided.

    Participants meet at the park-and-ride lot in Hailey at 9 or 10 a.m., then head south.

    “We just bird the whole way,” Wright-Pulliam said. “There are several good spots to stop.”

    Once the group reaches the Silver Creek Preserve visitor center, they get out and walk, on snowshoes if needed. Wright-Pulliam called the hike “medium strenuous,” though with all the stops for bird sightings, there are plenty of chances to rest.

    Participants are scheduled to be back in Hailey by 3 p.m., though Wright-Pulliam admits, “If the birding’s good, I’m notorious for not bringing people back on time.”

Winter tracking workshops

    The ERC also hosts a series of winter animal tracking workshops, led by longtime local naturalist Ann Christensen.

    The workshops this year will be held on Saturdays, Dec. 26, Jan. 2 and 16 and Feb. 13, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

    Participants meet at the ERC office where Christensen introduces participants to local winter animals, their life histories and winter adaptations, while laying out some basics about tracks. Participants then head outside on a snowshoe tracking adventure through the fields and woods north of town.

    Christensen said she usually conducts the filed portion of the workshop at Prairie Creek, about 18 miles north of Ketchum. She said she uses that area because it’s got three types of ecosystems—forest, creek and meadow—and because it’s off limits to dogs.

    “Dogs follow animal tracks and they mess them up and you can’t see them,” she said.

    Christensen said the most intriguing part of animal tracking is learning the stories they tell. For example, she said, trackers once followed mouse tracks in a meadow, then saw the wing tracks of an owl and no more mouse tracks. Another time they followed the tracks of a weasel and a mouse and then saw where the weasel had caught the mouse and taken it to a storage hole in a creek bank.

    Christensen said tracking’s best early in the winter, when the snow is cold and there are more animals.

    The workshops have a maximum of 20 participants. People interested should call the ERC at 726-4333. There is a suggestion donation of $10 for ERC members and $20 for nonmembers. 

Email the writer: gmoore@mtexpress.com

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