It’s a chilly 6 degrees under a partly clear sky when I step outside at dawn for my walk. I go along the road, passing woods, fields and swamps. As expected, I hear ravens, crows and a calling pileated woodpecker.
I return and in the comfort of the house, look out at the feeders to see that plenty is happening. The usual birds are present: black-capped chickadees, white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches, and downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers along with blue jays and a few turkeys wandering in from the woods. All of these birds, plus more that I see later, are part of the Christmas Bird Count.
These bird counts began early in the 20th century and have spread throughout the country. Each year during a three-week time between mid-December until early January, a day is chosen to conduct a bird survey. Though called the Christmas Bird Count, it has become a look at what kinds of birds are present here in winter. In Carlton County, we have conducted such a count for more than 30 years. In recent years, it was done about Jan. 1, but this year, it's mid-December.
Many people maintain bird feeders in winter and with weather conditions of the season and with less mobility, birds observed may be those at the feeders. However, with the help of some volunteers and some movement within the designated area (count circle) more birds can be seen.
About 15 of us wandered the region for the day and later reported our findings. We usually locate about 30 species. This year was the same: 34 species (nearly 1,800 individuals). Birds are identified and the number present are counted.
Each of the four bird groups were represented: raptors (bald eagle, rough-legged hawk, barred owl and great horned owl) gallinaceous birds (chicken-like); ruffed grouse and turkeys; and one aquatic bird, a common goldeneye duck, was in the open water of the St. Louis River.
By far the most numerous birds were the songbirds. At feeders were the same seven kinds that I saw. Not surprising, black-capped chickadees were the most abundant. Other birds seen at feeders included cardinals, pine siskins, goldfinches and some redpolls (a bit early for these birds to be at feeders). A few feeders had unusuals: mourning doves, rock pigeons, a grackle, evening grosbeaks and a rose-breasted grosbeak (first time).
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Crows, ravens and pileated woodpeckers were also seen, but not at feeders as were the raptor-like shrikes. A good number of crab apple trees with plentiful fruits attracted the attention of others: pine grosbeaks (nearly 70 were seen this year after none last year); starlings; robins; Bohemian waxwings (these berry-eating birds often form large flocks and numbered in the hundreds); and one cedar waxwing. A couple boreal birds were also present: a lone gray jay and flocks of white-winged crossbills in spruce trees.
Because of limitations that might exist on the day of the count, some other birds seen three days before or after the count week may also be part of the list. A brown creeper and a surprising Wilson’s snipe, a shore bird (also a first-time sighting), were added.
During the 30 years, there have been some notable changes. Both red-bellied woodpeckers and turkeys were not seen when we started, but are common now. House sparrows have not been seen in the last couple years. Evening grosbeaks that were absent for years may be returning.
Yes, the annual Christmas Bird Count did succeed in letting us know what kinds of birds are present locally in winter.