by Dan Casey
A number of the most active Flathead area birders commented that overall numbers of spring migrant and local breeding bird species were noticeably low in 2021. Sparrows, warblers, swallows and flycatchers were conspicuously late to arrive, and present in lower densities than expected in most habitats. It remains to be seen if we will see this trend continue in future years, but when viewed in the context of “3 billion birds lost” (https://abcbirds.org/3-billion-birds/), there is truly cause for concern. Some have suggested that the low numbers across the West were due in part to the large-scale die-off reported from the desert southwest in 2020 (https://www.aba.org/the-data-behind-mysterious-bird-deaths-in-new-mexico/).
From my own perspective, I was surprised how quiet the rich riparian habitats of the Sonny Boon trail in Somers were this spring, and how few Savannah Sparrows could be found in the lower valley habitats where they are typically abundant. I posted the following to the Montana Bird Discussion FaceBook group on 18 May:
Anyone else getting concerned about the lack of abundance and diversity of long-distance migrant landbirds this spring? Not only are arrival dates running generally late, numbers seem low across the board. While there is always annual variation in migration patterns, I have been quite surprised by just how empty many prime habitats seem to be here in the Flathead Valley.
This generated quite a list of responses: https://www.facebook.com/groups/2191128444282720/posts/4231504593578418
And I’ve received similar comments on this issue from several other experienced birders.
Scott Somershoe, USFWS Denver, who runs several eastern Montana Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) routes, said that several species, most notably Sprague’s Pipits (a Species of Concern) were much less abundant than last year.
Ed Harper, long-time Montana birder and Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) volunteer also noted that many species were in lower than expected numbers on his south-central and north-eastern Montana BBS routes.
Flathead Valley birder Craig Hohenberger also noted similar trends on the Kalispell BBS, which runs from Smith Lake to Lower Valley.
Similar stories abounded across social media platforms this Spring. But it will be interesting to see if data from standardized surveys, banding and citizen science projects confirm these apparent trends, at local, regional or continental scales.