Beginner bird walk offers new species each month

Story and photos by RICK ROWAN

Every third Saturday at Lee Metcalf Wildlife Refuge in the Bitterroot Valley, members of the Five Valleys Audubon Society assist aspiring birders to spot coots, widgeons, gadwalls and scores of other waterfowl.

The beginner bird walk highlights the avian activity in the large ponds surrounding the visitor center at the wildlife refuge. Identified as an “Important Bird Area,” birders have recorded more than 240 bird species in the ponds and riparian areas. Using high-powered spotting scopes provided by the refuge, people can see the birds in detail.

The “birders” at Lee Metcalf are diverse in ability; some are happy to see any bird to which they can give a positive identification, while others are able to distinguish birds by gender and relative age. Learning to identify ducks and other swimming birds can be easier for beginners because they are larger birds that don’t move very quickly.

Bob Danley, the outdoor recreation planner at Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge in Stevensville, assists birders with a powerful spotting scope.

Larry Weeks volunteers to lead the bird walk for Five Valleys Audubon every month and provides tips and tricks throughout the event. Among the most useful tricks for identifying ducks are to look at their speculum feathers, near the rear of the wing close to the body where many species present bright colors, or to look for behavior; some ducks dive, others don’t.

Weeks keeps a running list of every bird species he identifies throughout the year.

“Usually I’ve over 200,” Weeks said. “I’m having a good year. I’m at 230 right now, maybe I’ll get to 240.”

Birding is not just a visual activity. Cupping his ear and pointing into a thicket, Weeks identifies birds by ear as well.

“Listen,” Weeks said. “That’s a common yellowthroat, making their ‘chup’ sound, not their ‘wichiti, wichiti.’ ”

Time of year and time of day determine which species a birder sees, and because of migration patterns, each trip to the Lee Metcalf provides views of different species.

“I like the challenge of these ducks this time of year,” said Rose Stoudt, a board member of the Five Valleys Audubon.

In the two-hour bird walk on a late summer Saturday morning, the Audubon society guides spotted more than 30 species in their scopes and quickly shuffled each birder through to make sure everyone got a look.

Bob Danley works as the outdoor recreation planner at Lee Metcalf. Equally adept at birdwatching as the Audubon guides, Danley helps educate as well. Pointing out a ring-necked duck in his scope, he laughs and explains to look for a ring on its bill rather than one around its neck.

“Most of the time the ornithologists get it right and name a bird for its most distinctive feature, but with a ring-necked duck they really messed it up,” Danley said. “You won’t see the ring unless you’re holding it out at arm’s length it’s so faint.”

The beginner bird walks are not canceled for poor weather, and according to Danley, some of the most interesting birding experiences can happen on rainy days.

Looking west over the ponds in Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge in Stevensville.

“When it rains it’s really good because the birds concentrate themselves in an area,” Danley said.

“Yesterday we had 300 swallows out here feeding over the ponds.”

For Danley, the best part of the bird walks at Lee Metcalf is their accessibility, the trails are mellow and accessible to just about anyone.

“Most people don’t appreciate or think about what is outside their backdoor as nature,” Danley said. “You don’t have to go anywhere special to go birding. Hopefully by attending these things, we’re inspiring people to go out on their own.”

The beginning birder walks set for the rest of 2017 include Saturday, Oct. 21, Saturday, Nov. 18, and Saturday, Dec. 16, and all are from 10 a.m. to noon. Dress for the weather and bring a snack.

No comments yet.

Add a comment