Northland Nature: Annual Christmas bird count a useful practiceBirds wintering in the Northland are either those that breed here and remain for the winter or those that migrate from the north to spend the cold season with us.
Many of us have formed rituals that we do each December. Most of these are built around the holidays and, though the month is one of darkness and chill, it remains busy and enjoyable for many of us. One non-traditional activity that I have done for many years is the local Christmas bird count. This year it was on Dec. 19 in Carlton County.
Christmas bird counts began more than a century ago and spread throughout the country; now thousands are conducted all over North America. Using the time of the holidays, we pick a date to canvass an area, known as the “count circle,” to record the species of birds and numbers of each kind seen. We visit the same sites within a 15-mile diameter circle each time.
Since weather may be a factor on the count day, we also note birds on the three days before and after, thus giving us a count week. Such a survey has become a good snapshot of bird populations and the health of the environment.
Over a period of years, various trends of avian changes are observed. During the last 25 years, I have noted many fluctuations with wintering birds in Carlton County. When it first began, the number of birds seen was usually in the low 20s. With the help of more counters, this total has now averages in the 30s. (As it was this year, and three times, we recorded 40 species.) More than 50 kinds were spotted throughout the years.
Many birds have been seen each year. Chickadees, nuthatches, crows, ravens, blue jays, barred owls and ruffed grouse — along with downy, hairy and pileated woodpeckers — have perfect attendance. They appear to have a consistent and healthy population.
Others vary with the years, and I find it interesting to look at these changes. Birds wintering in the Northland are either those that breed here and remain for the winter or those that migrate from the north to spend the cold season with us.
Some of these latter birds — redpolls, pine grosbeaks, juncos, boreal chickadees, gray jays (pictured), snow buntings, black-backed woodpeckers, rough-legged hawks, goshawks, bald eagles and goldeneyes (present in open sites of the frozen St. Louis River) — are seen nearly every year, but, with varying conditions in their home sites, they may be absent at times.
A few birds are now wintering here that were not earlier.
Each year, it is expected that we will see robins, goldfinches, purple finches, pine siskins, brown creepers and a couple of sparrow species. Goldfinches, not represented at all in the beginning, are now the most consistent of the finches. On the other hand, evening grosbeaks that were so loud and abundant at the feeders when I began, are now nearly always absent. A few birds, crossbills, great gray and snowy owls, are easy to see some years, but not always.
Three species of birds formerly living further south have extended their ranges to the north and, in recent years, have become regular parts of our counts. Red-bellied woodpeckers and cardinals are now seen at local bird feeders, and they also breed here.
But the biggest bird change in the county is the inclusion of wild turkeys. The large gallinaceous birds have been seen throughout the state and, in the last decade, they haven’t been strangers to Carlton County. We saw only a few at first, but now we record flocks that total of about 50.
The Christmas bird count continues to be a great, though unique, winter ritual and another way to enjoy the season greetings of all Northland inhabitants.
Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books that are available now, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@