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House Finches Make Big Splash During Bird Count as Apparent Climate Refugees
Sunday, January 16, 2022


Ribbons of deep pink and orange could be seen under the cloud cover to the south as a dozen men and women gathered in the Thursday morning dark at Hop Porter Park.

They listened as Poo Wright-Pulliam assigned areas to canvas, their attention periodically interrupted as they looked up to watch magpies fly overhead.

“That looks like a solitaire,” Wright-Pulliam said, as she looked in the direction of a high-pitched clear ringing song from a dull gray-colored Townsend’s solitaire.

The group had gathered at the bidding of the Wood River Land Trust, which is eager to demonstrate that its Wood River Valley preserves are providing much needed bird habitat. This count, held three weeks later than the official Audubon Christmas Bird Count, was a pilot project to determine how such a bird count should be handled.

“We’ve done a Christmas Bird Count at Silver Creek for 40 years. But it’s very rural and there’s nothing but backroads except for a few streets in Picabo and Gannett,” said Wright-Pulliam. “We’d never done one in a city so we had to learn what it will take to survey blocks and blocks of streets versus driving down a farm road and looking on both sides of the road.”

The group established a center point at the light at Bullion Street in Hailey and drew a 16-mile radius that extended south of Bellevue to Glendale Road and nearly as far north as the Sawtooth Botanical Garden. They’d hoped to get 7.5 miles out the various canyons but were limited by snow—Wright-Pulliam, for instance, could only go 6.5 miles out Croy Canyon.

Brian Sturges was involved in the Sun Valley Bird Counts in the 1970s, during which birders counted vast numbers of American dippers, which are known for their bobbing or dipping movements. They are North America’s only aquatic songbird, able to use their wings to swim underwater and walk along stream bottoms catching bugs.

Wright-Pulliam’s group spotted six during the day—one under the Bow Bridge in the Draper Preserve.

“With the water so clear, we were able to watch him swim to the bottom to eat the bugs off rocks, and that was incredible,” she said. “At every bridge we stopped there was one or two—a lot of them nest under bridges or on the sides of riverbanks.”

The Sun Valley Bird Count only lasted 10 years because home construction began closing access. Birders shifted their sights to Silver Creek Preserve near Picabo and instantly their species count climbed from 12 to 15 in Sun Valley to 60 at Silver Creek.

For this pilot bird count, Sturges teamed up with recently retired biology teacher Larry Barnes and Forest Service wildlife biologist Deb Taylor to canvas an area between Glendale Road and Colorado Gulch Preserve at Hailey’s south end.

They tromped through aspen trees on a path that had been worn into the snow by foot traffic, crossing a small bridge with a brass owl mounted on it.

“I don’t see any birds. We’re supposed to be doing a bird count!” whined Barnes.

A few minutes later, Taylor cocked her head as she heard a black capped chickadee. She finally spotted  the nonmigratory songbird with its black cap and black bib underneath its beak on top of a dead cottonwood tree.

Barnes pursed his lips to make a “Woo woo” sound that chickadees might think was an owl.

“Sometimes chickadees will find the owls and make them go away,” he said.

The Christmas Bird Count was started in 1900 as an alternative to traditional Christmas bird hunts that were decimating bird populations. Now it’s the largest citizen science project in the world.

It’s done in winter when birds don’t move around as much.

“People enjoy it because they like to socialize as they look for birds,” said Sturges. “Surveys can show the ebb and flow, migration changes, extinctions due to habitat loss. And they show how some birds might be expanding their territory in response to climate change.”

“The bird count is long-term in nature—data for a hundred years-plus. It’s rare to have data that long,” added Taylor.

Taylor abruptly brought her binoculars to her eyes as she spotted a mallard swimming in a body of water 50 feet away.

“Four ringed-necks, four wood ducks, eight mallards,” Sturges counted as he entered the birds on his eBird app. “And, so far, six black capped chickadees.”

Keeping track of bird distribution is important, Sturges said.

“They’re a mirror into the environment,” he added. “If they’re doing well, the habitat is good—it hasn’t been overharvested. The sage grouse is a good indicator of the health of range land in the West. If we lose the sage grouse, we know we’re destroying something and it’s not sustainable.”

Taylor said local bird counts helps her follow the trends of species that she finds in the Sawtooth National Forest. For instance, she now sees plenty of Eurasian collared doves that were introduced to Florida and have spread across the United States.

Twenty years ago, there were no house finches, which sport large beaks and small bodies, in the Wood River Valley. But they’ve burgeoned in the past five years, said Barnes.  Conversely, there are fewer gold finches, a yellow and black bird that is native to North America.

They used to be seen only in Bellevue but they’re now being seen in Hailey, probably a result of climate change, said Taylor.

“West Nile disease took a toll on crows for a few years but they have rebounded,” she added. “But we’re seeing fewer mourning doves.”

On Thursday the birders purposely kept their numbers low due to COVID. Four birders walked the streets of Hailey, with one chalking up 11 miles during her eight-hour canvas. Two surveyed birds at their feeders. One went out Quigley Canyon as far as she could go; another, out Slaughterhouse Gulch.

When the counts were in, they had seen 50 species and 2,595 individual birds.

“I think that’s exciting,” said Wright-Pulliam. “I think a lot of people would be surprised that we could spot 50 species during winter.”

The birders spotted 334 house finches, a bird they never used to see at high altitude. There were 317 black capped chickadees. Coming in third were magpies, whose numbers had dropped way down but are making a comeback.

“There were some we missed,” Wright-Pulliam said. “We would have liked to have found a Clark’s nutcracker and a couple finches we know are here. We only spotted one great horned owl, yet we know there are a lot of those.

“We could hear a woodpecker at Greenhorn Gulch and searched a half-hour for it, thinking it might have been a three-toed, black-backed or even a pileated woodpecker, which would have been cool to get on the count. After all our searching, it turned out to be a really loud downy woodpecker.”

Wright-Pulliam said the test project demonstrated they will need far more counters next year.

“Now that we’ve done a trial run and learned how to do it, we’ll regroup next Christmas when, hopefully, we can submit it to the official Audubon Christmas Bird Count.”


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