Valley’s annual count points to effects of climate change
By Ann McCreary
Kent Woodruff says numerous local residents have told him that there don’t seem to be as many birds at their feeders this winter. A recently completed bird count may shed some light on those observations, and the possible impacts of climate change on local bird populations.
Woodruff, a local wildlife biologist, tallied the results of the 31st annual “Christmas bird count,” which took place in the Methow Valley on Dec. 30. The survey documented a record number of species — 80 different species of birds, beating the previous record of 72 species, Woodruff said.
While some species — including robins and wild turkeys — had increased numbers during the recent count, the survey found decreases compared to previous years in some species commonly seen at birdfeeders in winter — among them red-breasted nuthatches, mountain chickadees and Steller’s jays, Woodruff said.
Those diminished numbers could be why some valley residents report seeing fewer birds than usual at their feeders, Woodruff said. Why those species appear to have lower numbers isn’t clear, but Woodruff — a wildlife biologist for more than 40 years — has a theory.
“These are conifer forest birds in the summer. It’s an indication the conifer forests are being impacted in some way,” Woodruff said. The most obvious impact to forests in the region, he said, are devastating wildfires that have occurred in the region over the past several years.
“The map on my wall shows a huge area affected by wildfires,” Woodruff said. “1.5 million acres of forests that have burned in lower elevation and mixed conifer forest are having an impact.”
Fires have directly impacted the Methow Valley, including the Tripod Fire in 2006, Carlton Complex in 2014, Twisp River Fire in 2015, Diamond Creek Fire in 2017, and Crescent Mountain and McClure fires in 2018. And fires in other parts of the region, from Lake Chelan to Omak, to Canada and the Columbia River, also affect birds that are found locally, Woodruff said.
“The red-breasted nuthatch is one of the most common species in mixed conifer forests,” Woodruff said. The average number of red-breasted nuthatches observed over the past 30 years is 47, but the December count found 25.
Supporting the theory
The bird count also found a drop in the number of mountain chickadees, another conifer forest-dweller, from an average of 50 over the past 30 years to 34. Steller’s jays, a common bird of western forests mountains and the northwest coast, averaged 19 sightings in previous years, but only 7 were seen in the December 2018 count.
Loss of vast tracts of conifer forest habitat due to wildfires could explain the reduction in the numbers of these species, which are all “arboreal” nesters and feeders — spending much of their lives in trees and rarely descending to the ground or leaving the cover of the canopy, Woodruff said.
By contrast, dark-eyed juncos, which are also conifer forest-dwelling birds and one of the most ubiquitous birds in the United States, had much higher numbers than the 30-year average. The December count found 672 juncos, compared to an average of 201.
Yet the increase in juncos fits into the theory that wildfires are impacting bird populations, Woodruff said, because unlike the canopy-dwelling species, juncos feed and nest on the forest floor. In the wake of wildfires, many shrubs, forbs and grasses grow abundantly, creating a habitat that is well-suited to ground-dwelling juncos.
“Dead trees are poor habitat for chickadees and nuthatches, but the thicker underbrush that occurs after fire is a benefit for juncos, providing more food, cover and nesting habitat,” Woodruff said.
For Woodruff, the bird count numbers are “absolutely” an indication that climate change is impacting the environment locally. “We are seeing the impact of the last 30 years of climate change. The fires here are the best expression of climate change,” he said. “And the fires we’ve experienced will express themselves more and more over the next 20 years.”
The prospect for recovery of the mountain chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches is good, barring loss of more habitat, Woodruff said. “One thing we know about all small bird species is they are very resilient.” The birds generally have three to five chicks per year to help rebuild the population, he said.
Among the statistics that stand out in the December bird count, Woodruff said, is an unusually high number of American robins. Robins have been seen in 20 of the 30 years of the survey, and the average number is 9, but the recent count tallied 116 robins.
It’s unclear why there are so many robins, which generally migrate to warmer climates in winter, Woodruff said. However, robins are fruit eaters and there appears to be a good supply this winter, he noted. “Crabapples, mountain ash and elderberries, even apples are food for robins. I see a good productive year for those winter fruit-bearing trees. That may be one indication why they decided they could stick around,” he said.
The December bird count also showed big increases in a number of other species. Wild turkeys have proliferated from an average of 93, observed over 14 years, to 317; California quail numbers grew from an average of 32 over 30 years to 440; Eurasian collared doves increased from 48 over 10 years of sightings to 178; mourning doves increased from an average of 44 over 28 years to 128.
The count found 60 bald eagles, compared to an average of 37 over 30 years; 35 red-tailed hawk sightings compared to an average of 15 over 29 years; 11 American kestrels compared to an average of 2 over 19 years; 302 European starlings compared to an average of 89 over 29 years; 121 northern flickers compared to 41 over 30 years; 287 house finches compared to 135 over 30 years; and 53 red-winged blackbirds compared to an average of 8 over 11 years of sightings.
The winter bird count also found three species that have never been seen in previous years — two mountain bluebirds, one spotted sandpiper, and one Harris’s sparrow, Woodruff said.
In addition to counting a record number of species, the December 2018 bird count had a record number of participants. Woodruff said 50 people turned out for the daylong event, topping the previous participation record of 44 people.
Participants met early in the morning and inexperienced bird watchers were paired with more-experienced birders. The survey takes place over a circular area with a 7.5-mile radius centered on Twisp, and extending toward Winthrop, Carlton, Loup Loup Pass and up the Twisp River, for a total of 177 square miles.
The circle is divided into 12 segments, like a pie. “People spread out and try to find what they can find. It’s a fun daylong outing,” Woodruff said. There are now more than 1,300 count circles across North America, from Honolulu to Fairbanks, and each reports their numbers to the Audubon Society, which posts them online, Woodruff said.
The local bird count was started by Twisp resident Susan Koptonak and the late Dick Chavey, who was known as “the professor” due to his passion for sharing knowledge of birds and the natural world, Woodruff said.
“The science of this is imprecise because we’re variable in the number of people that come out and the places they go, but it gives us a pretty good indication of trends,” said Woodruff, who has been keeping the bird count tally for 20 years. “The fun thing I see is a big picture of 31 years of information about the birds that are here at Christmas time. It’s a kind of pulse-taking that is an indication of what’s going on.”
“There’s always something new to see each year. We are still learning what’s going on with birds on this planet and birds in this valley,” Woodruff said. “Several people that joined us for this Christmas bird count said it was so much fun. Trying to understand and observe beautiful birds, the joy of native animals in their habitat — it’s enriching for all of us to do this count.”
The 2019 bird count will take place on Dec. 29, Woodruff said.