Eyes across the Big Sky
By MARTIN J. KIDSTON Independent Record - 02/03/2009
Catherine Wightman, whose avian studies have taken her from Australia to Greenland, will work this year as the state’s first nongame bird coordinator, developing a new strategy that finds ways to protect and preserve Montana’s nongame birds and their habitat.(Eliza Wiley Independent Record)
Her office is small and sparsely decorated, but Catherine Wightman doesn’t plan on spending much time between these white walls when the birds come home to roost.
Wightman, whose avian studies have taken her from Australia to Greenland, will work this year as the new nongame bird coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
As such, Wightman will aim to develop new strategies to protect and preserve Montana’s nongame birds and their habitat. It’s a big job in a big state with a surprising number of bird species.
“She’ll work to expand Montana’s bird monitoring,” said Ken McDonald, a wildlife chief for FWP. “She’ll work to increase opportunities for the public to participate in bird surveys, and lead some habitat enhancement projects for nongame birds.”
Raptors, woodpeckers, shorebirds and some waterbirds fall within the nongame bird category. But perching birds and songbirds, Wightman noted, are considered the largest group.
For Wightman, a bird lover who earned her master’s degree in raptor biology at Boise State University, the opportunity to focus on Montana’s bird populations has her looking forward to the coming season and getting into the field.
“The diversity found among birds is unparalleled,” Wightman said last week. “They’re found in every kind of habitat, and their ability to adapt, or take advantage of that habitat, is just fascinating.”
Of all the species of birds in Montana — and there were more than 420 of them at last count — Wightman is particularly interested in the mountain plover, the burrowing owl and the long-bill curlew.
She described the curlew as a “showy” bird that typifies the grasslands with its antics and songs. Both the curlew and the mountain plover, however, have shown population declines in recent years, and that has Wightman concerned.
Scientists believe the loss of native grasslands, along with prairie dog eradication, may be contributing to the decline. Helping such species will require a continued understanding of their population patterns, densities, and the land-use changes that affect them over time.
“There will be some land-use changes included in that document to see how birds respond to those changes,” Wightman said. “When we start seeing patterns develop, we can go in and develop a research project to identify why we’re seeing those trends.”
In the 2003 edition of P.D. Skaar’s Montana Bird Distribution Book, volunteers documented 409 species of birds across the state. Of those, 29 species appeared to be growing their distribution while 27 appeared to be dwindling.
The new addition of the Bird Distribution Book is due out next year. And while the project is far from over, volunteers thus far have observed 422 species of birds in Montana, or 13 more than in 2003.
Saying why is difficult, Wightman said. It could be that various species are returning to their native range after years of absence. Climate change may be a factor. It could also be that the 13 species aren’t really new, but were simply overlooked in previous counts.
“There’s a lot of information we just don’t know,” Wightman said. “We don’t have a good tracking program right now.”
To better track the birds and gain that information, Wightman is out to build new alliances with backyard volunteers and others in the state, from the Department of Defense to the local farmer.
The state’s bird distribution program may be a good place to start, she noted, with volunteers documenting their findings into a state-run database. The project is a cooperative effort with the Audubon Society, along with the Montana Bird Records Committee and the Montana Natural Heritage Program.
“It’s sort of like a citizen’s science project,” she said. “It has really increased the knowledge of where birds are in the state. We’re just as interested in the common birds as we are in the rare birds.”