The 123rd Christmas Bird Count in Montana

Total Counts Run, Total Species Found, and Number of Participants

Montana’s Christmas Bird Count (CBC) this season (#123) totaled 31 of 36 potential count circles, which was similar to the average number of circles during the period CBC #115-122 (32).  Several circles have not run in the past few years, due to combinations of a lack of a coordinator, lack of participants, and extreme bad weather during the count period.  However, one new count was planned and did run (Quigley, located in the Rock Creek area (east of Missoula).  I am seeking coordinators for the orphaned Cut Bank and Chester counts, both east of the divide, in the north-central third of the state.

We tallied 133 species cumulatively on our various count days (Appendix 1), which was lower than the average of the past eight counts (142 species, CBCs #115-#122).  Three species were found only during count week and not on any count days (Spruce Grouse at Eureka, Lapland Longspur at Great Falls, and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch at Kalispell).  High numbers of species were tallied during CBCs #118 and 119, each with 147 species.  We did not add any new species this year to our cumulative Montana list of 221 CBC count day species.

Bigfork again had the high count day number of species at 83, but this was well short of their usual (around 90), and their highest ever—which is also the state record—98, from CBC #118.  The next highest counts were in the mid to upper 70s—Missoula (78), Stevensville (77), and Kalispell (75).  These three counts generally jockey for position after Bigfork every year.  McNeil Slough had the fewest species with 12, followed by Quigley (16) and West Yellowstone (19).  The average number of species per count this year was 48, close to the average from the last eight years (49 species, CBC #115-122).  As was reported last year, even though the number of circles reporting data each year ranges from 29 to 34, the average number of species reported remains fairly constant (around 49).

The total number of participants this year (770; 617 field counters and 153 feeder-watchers) was almost the same as last year (776; 621 field counters and 155 feeder-watchers).  Total participant numbers were about 10% lower than the average number of participants (855) from the last eight years (CBC#115-122).  Field counters (617) numbered about 12% fewer than the average (700) for the same period.  For comparison, the high number of participants from CBC #115-122 was 940 during CBC #120.  Recall this count period ended by 5 January 2020, so before Covid precautions were widespread here.  The high number of field counters for this period was 796 (during CBC #119).  Covid issues have reduced participation starting during CBC #121.

Missoula again had the highest number of participants with 101 people (78 in the field and 23 feeder-watchers).  Stevensville (69) and Bozeman (65) followed.  McNeil Slough again had the fewest participants (2).  A good rule of thumb for count coverage is at least 10 field participants per circle.  This year we averaged 20 field participants per count circle.

Effort—Number of Field Party Hours

This year, the effort or number of daytime field party hours (1248) was lower compared to last year (1386, Figure 1), but only about 11% lower than the average of the last eight years (1404).  Poor viewing conditions (fog and deep snow on the ground) and harsh weather (snowing, wind) affected the duration of birding on some counts.  Feeder-watcher hours (379) increased slightly (3%) compared to the average of the last eight years (368). 

This year, fewer individual birds were tallied than during all the past eight years (Figure 1).  This year’s total was 31% lower than the average number of individual birds found during the period CBC #115-122, which was 224,667 birds.  Fewer field party hours this year likely contributed to the lower number of individual birds found, but probably was not the only factor.  Likely combinations of more snow cover (so more difficult walking), more frozen water (so less habitat for waterfowl), fog and harsh viewing conditions on count day, and natural variability in species numbers from year to year (so some species’ numbers vary wildly year to year and can be naturally low some years) all contributed to the low number of individuals this year.  We examine fluctuations for several species next.

Reminder—For the next several sections, please recall that the metric we use to compare bird data between years is birds per party hour, which standardizes our bird numbers counted relative to the amount of effort recorded for each year.

Fluctuations in numbers from high counts last year compared to this year.

Last year we had notably high numbers for several species, in particular American Coot and Snow Buntings.  This year, the total number of each was substantially lower (Figure 2). 

During CBC #122, American Coot numbers were high mainly because of warm temperatures in December that maintained open water for the birds to gather in large flocks.  This year, coot numbers in terms of birds per party hour was about 50% lower than the average birds per party hour for the period CBC # 55-122.  Except for large lakes and reservoirs, most streams and smaller ponds were frozen this year.  While lower than average, coot numbers were still within the range of variability for the species since the late 70s (Figure 3).  That is, coot numbers have generally fluctuated widely (rather than tightly) around the average birds per party hour, likely a function of open water availability.

Snow Bunting

Last year we had large numbers of flocking nomadic birds that are associated with agricultural stubble fields, especially when grains remain available on snow-free ground.  We found 6654 Snow Buntings last year; this year we had a total of 240 (Figure 2).  While below the average birds per party hour for recent counts, this year’s number was still within the range of variability (Figure 4).  Similarly, Horned Larks totaled 10,738 last year and only 1049 this year.  Lapland Longspurs totaled 112 last year, while this year we only had one count week bird. 

Bald Eagle

Not all species decreased more than recent averages.  Last year, Bald Eagle birds per party hour had increased over 160 % compared to recent averages.  This year, Bald Eagle numbers were lower than last year, but birds per party hour was still higher than recent averages (Figure 5). Bald Eagle numbers have steadily increased since the mid- to late-70s, thanks to pesticide bans at that time.

European Starling was the only numerous bird that increased appreciably in total birds and birds per party hour from last year to this year (Figure 2).  This species fluctuates widely from year to year.  This year, birds per party hour was near to and a bit higher than their preceding average (Figure 6).

Widespread Species

As is often the case, Bald Eagle was the most widespread species this year, found on 30 of 31 counts (absent from Quigley).  Three other species were found on at least 28 counts—Mallard, Canada Goose, and Rock Pigeon. 

Mallard was found on 29 counts and was absent from Bowdoin and Upper Swan Valley.  Mallard birds per party hour increased slightly from last year and remained near the long-term preceding average.

Canada Goose was found on 27 counts and one during count week (Yellowstone National Park), so was represented on 28 counts.  Canada Goose was absent from Bowdoin, Eureka, and McNeil Slough.  Canada Goose birds per party hour decreased from last year, but like Mallard, stayed near the preceding recent average. 

Rock Pigeon was found on 28 counts and absent from Glacier National Park, Troy, and Upper Swan Valley.  Birds per party hour increased from last year but remained a bit below the recent average.  Rock Pigeon birds per party hour has increased steadily since the early 70s, but the rate of increase appears to have tapered off since the mid-to-late 90s. 

Mourning and Eurasian Collared-Dove

Mourning Dove birds per party hour was lower than last year, but still considerably higher than during the period from the late 40s through the late 90s (Figure 7).  Eurasian Collared-Dove birds per party hour was higher than last year, but not as high as their peak from CBC #117-118.   


Bohemian Waxwing—always a species with wide fluctuations—decreased from last year, but birds per party hour was within the range of variability when compared to the preceding average birds per party hour.  This year’s number of Bohemian Waxwing individuals (9374) was well short of the high of 32,898 (CBC # 106) and last year’s 18,459, but quite a bit higher than the year before that (4488, CBC #121).  Overall, the Bohemian Waxwing graph shows wide fluctuations around its preceding average (Figure 8), similar to American Coot. 

Cedar Waxwing, another bird with high increases in birds per party hour last year, showed a relatively large decrease from last year’s birds per party hour, in contrast to Bohemian Waxwing.  Cedar Waxwing birds per party hour this year was below but near to its average preceding birds per party hour (Figure 8). 

Single Birds Found on Single Counts

One White-winged Dove was reported from the Roundup area on the Musselshell Valley count (Figure 9).  The bird was documented at least three times during both the early (15 Dec-14 Jan) and late (15 Jan -15 Feb) winter periods, so it is the first occurrence of this species to be considered overwintering (or large W in the Montana Natural Heritage Program database) in any area in Montana.  The species was found on one previous count—at Bozeman during CBC 121, but it missed being considered as overwintering that season by one day (John Parker, pers. comm.)! 

Besides the above single dove, one Long-tailed Duck was reported from Great Falls; a single Snowy Owl was tallied at Kalispell; one Spotted Towhee was found at Bozeman; one Brown-headed Cowbird was at Bigfork; and one Peregrine Falcon—our least likely winter falcon—was well-described at Park County. 

Other Unusual Species Found

Other unusual species were five Western Bluebirds (all from Helena); one Lewis’s Woodpecker at Missoula and a CW bird from Stevensville; one Ferruginous Hawk at Stevensville (this species is generally less likely on the west side of the state) and one at Billings (more expected here); one count day Gyrfalcon from Park County and a CW bird at Fort Peck; and three Greater Sage-Grouse, all from Bowdoin.


Several gulls were singles this year, including a Thayer’s-type Iceland Gull, and a Lesser Black-backed Gull, where one each was recorded from Fort Peck, our winter gull capital.  Fort Peck also had the only California Gulls (24 birds).  The other gull species found this year were 268 Ring-billed Gulls (from 3 counts, but not from Fort Peck) and 101 Herring Gulls from three counts.


This season’s winter finch forecast from the Finch Research Network  predicted a large spruce cone crop in western Canada, which in turn suggested fewer Pine Siskins south of Canada.  That seemed to be the case here, with decreases in birds per party hour this year in Pine Siskin, as well as in American Goldfinch and House Finch.  The decreases for all were within the range of variability, when compared to preceding years’ birds per party hour.    


We found seven of the possible 13 owl species this year—Great Horned, Snowy (1 bird at Kalispell), Northern Pygmy-Owl, Barred (2 birds at Stevensville and 1 count week [CW] bird in Missoula), Long-eared, Short-eared, and Northern Saw-whet owl (1 bird each in Kalispell and Missoula and a CW bird from Bozeman).  Great Horned was fairly widespread—102 birds were found on 19 different counts.  We missed Great Gray and Northern Hawk Owl, both of which were found later in the winter in the state.  We also missed both Western and Eastern Screech-owls; finding these two species is usually hit or miss.  While possible, Barn Owl is always a fairly rare species (found on 4 past counts).  Rarer still is Boreal Owl, because our count circles are generally not high enough in elevation for resident birds, or when the circles do contain potential habitat, the sites are difficult to access.  Single birds have been found on two past counts—Glacier National Park (CBC #82) and Missoula (CBC #107).  

Red-tailed and Rough-Legged Hawks.

Red-tailed and Rough-legged hawk birds per party hour both decreased compared to last year (Figure 10).  However, Red-tailed Hawks remained above their preceding average while Rough-legs dropped below their preceding average.


Appendix 1. Species tallied during Montana Christmas Bird Count #123

Species Name

Species Name

Snow Goose

Lewis's Woodpecker

Cackling Goose

Downy Woodpecker

Canada Goose

Hairy Woodpecker

Trumpeter Swan

Northern Flicker

Tundra Swan

Pileated Woodpecker

Wood Duck

American Kestrel



American Wigeon



Peregrine Falcon

Northern Shoveler

Prairie Falcon

Northern Pintail

Northern Shrike

Green-winged Teal

Canada Jay


Pinyon Jay


Steller's Jay

Ring-necked Duck

Blue Jay

Greater Scaup

Black-billed Magpie

Lesser Scaup

Clark's Nutcracker

Long-tailed Duck

American Crow


Common Raven

Common Goldeneye

Horned Lark

Barrow's Goldeneye

Black-capped Chickadee

Hooded Merganser

Mountain Chickadee

Common Merganser

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Red-breasted Merganser

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Ruddy Duck

White-breasted Nuthatch

California Quail

Pygmy Nuthatch

Ring-necked Pheasant

Brown Creeper

Gray Partridge

Canyon Wren

Ruffed Grouse

Pacific Wren

Greater Sage-Grouse

Marsh Wren

Spruce Grouse------------------------CW

American Dipper

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Wild Turkey

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Pied-billed Grebe

Western Bluebird

Horned Grebe

Townsend's Solitaire

Western Grebe

American Robin

Double-crested Cormorant

Varied Thrush

Great Blue Heron

European Starling

Golden Eagle

Bohemian Waxwing

Northern Harrier

Cedar Waxwing

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Lapland Longspur ---------------------------------CW

Cooper's Hawk

Snow Bunting

Northern Goshawk

American Tree Sparrow

Bald Eagle

Dark-eyed Junco

Red-tailed Hawk

White-crowned Sparrow

Rough-legged Hawk

Harris's Sparrow

Ferruginous Hawk

White-throated Sparrow

Virginia Rail

Song Sparrow

American Coot

Spotted Towhee


Red-winged Blackbird

Wilson's Snipe

Western Meadowlark

Ring-billed Gull

Yellow-headed Blackbird

California Gull

Rusty Blackbird

Herring Gull

Brewer's Blackbird

Thayer’s Gull

Common Grackle

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Brown-headed Cowbird

Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch -------------------------CW

Eurasian Collared-Dove

Pine Grosbeak

White-winged Dove

House Finch

Mourning Dove

Purple Finch

Great Horned Owl

Cassin's Finch

Snowy Owl

Red Crossbill

Northern Pygmy-Owl

Common Redpoll

Barred Owl

Pine Siskin

Long-eared Owl

Lesser Goldfinch

Short-eared Owl

American Goldfinch

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Evening Grosbeak

Belted Kingfisher

House Sparrow