Birds in Yellowstone National Park seem to be healthy, though biologist Lauren Walker wishes the average visitor cared more about the sweet sounds that fill the air, or the fascinating raptors.
Birds are her speciality, and as an author of Yellowstone’s 2018 Bird Project Annual Report, so she may be prejudiced.
“The average visitor thinks very little about them,” Walker said.
Tourists say they come to the world’s oldest national park to see bears and wolves and bison. But she said “people like seeing” eagles and owls too, and bird observation seems to be gaining in popularity.
But it goes both ways.
Sometimes, crew members surveying birds may be seen with binoculars studying raptor nests and motorists pull alongside and ask what they are looking at. When they say birds, Walker said, “They say, ‘Oh, I don’t care’ and drive away.”
At about the same time as nationwide attention was drawn to September science reports indicating some 3 billion birds have been lost across North America since 1970, according to Walker, Yellowstone has seen only “a slight decline since the 1990s. I wouldn’t say dramatic.”
While the large mammals may be the main draw for Yellowstone tourists who do not classify themselves as birders, the Park is blessed with an abundance of birds and a large variety.
Among other species are bald eagles, peregrine falcons, osprey, trumpeter swans, loons, and songbirds of many types, from robins to sparrows, bluebirds, thrushes, meadowlarks and warblers.
“We survey quite a diverse group of species,” Walker said.
Officials keep track of historical falcon and eagle nesting locations and in 2018 12 of 28 peregrine falcon “territories were occupied,” the report indicated, “and productivity of occupied territories was the highest observed since 2003.”
However, the nesting success of bald eagles, as well as osprey, were down from several recent years’ reports.
Yellowstone officials also have participated in periodic North American Breeding Bird Surveys since the mid-1980s and 2018 was one of the monitoring years.
Last year, Park experts counted more than 3,100 birds at Mammoth, the Northeast Entrance and an area described as Yellowstone, which is a route between Dunravan Pass to Mary Bay, during the monitoring period. That included seeing 82 different species.
One observation was a jump in Canada geese.
“The number of Canada geese in Hayden Valley has increased dramatically in recent years,” the report stated, “boosting the total count along the Yellowstone route and compensating for decreases in observations of other waterbird species.”
Yellowstone’s comparatively stable populations in recent years contrast with the Cornell Lab of Orinthology study indicating 3 billion birds have vanished from the continent’s landscape in 50 years.
The news was published in “Science” magazine. A number of researchers from such groups as the North American Breeding Bird Survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Audobon Society Christmas Bird Count, and others, combined data.
The findings stunned officials because the 3 billion figure represents a decline in bird numbers of 25 to 30 percent.
“They are huge numbers,” Walker said, though she believes some of the review of the information has been “sensationalized.”
Not taken into account, she said, was the impact of invasive species.
Most of Yellowstone’s surveying is done roadside. However, officials have looked at Willow habitat in the back country and want to analyze bird counts in forests.
“We can’t control it,” Walker said of some factors, impacting birds, whether they are climate-change related or other causes. “But we want to know what we lose.”