Larry Weber

For the Budgeteer News

We have lots of rituals and practices at this time of year. As the calendar year winds down, many of the nature watchers of the region enjoy a ritual known as the Christmas Bird Count. Although “Christmas” is part of the name, the bird count has little or nothing to do with the holiday. The count, which was started by the National Audubon Society more than a hundred years ago, merely uses this time of year to do the count.

All over North America, participants are asked to chose a day between mid-December and early January (a time of about three weeks) to go into an area (a circle of 15 miles in diameter) to count the species of birds seen and the number of individuals of each kind. With enough help, the area can be well-monitored and we get a fairly good sampling of the birds that are wintering with us.

Like many others in the Northland, I have been participating in a Christmas Bird Count for many years. I see it as a good way to work with others to get a view of the birds here. If I had to rely only on my own observations, I would no doubt be missing much.

This year was no exception. On Sunday, Dec. 15, about 15 of us spread out to go through our predetermined area in Carlton County to count the number of birds here. Driving, walking, skiing, snowshoeing or just watching bird feeders, we noted all the avian action. We gathered in the evening to talk and look over the results.

Our findings listed 30, which was about normal. Every year there are the usual birds seen, some that are occasional, and often a surprise or two.

Among the usuals, we saw black-capped chickadees, white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches, downy, hairy and pileated woodpeckers, blue jays, crows, ravens, barred and great horned owls, ruffed grouse and turkey (a regular bird now seen in each of the last ten years).

Goldfinches represented the only finch species.

The absence of redpolls, pine siskins, purple finches, grosbeaks and crossbills was also noted.

Also missing were robins and hawks, although bald eagles were seen.

Other birds of note we saw were flocks of snow buntings, and Bohemian and cedar waxwings.

While the first of these waxwings is a regular, the second is not. Showing up as individuals or in small numbers were several more regulars: northern shrike, cardinals, mourning doves, red-bellied woodpeckers and juncos.

White-throated and tree sparrows were noted too - seen before, but sporadically.

And two ducks, both common goldeneyes, were found in open waters of the St. Louis River. These hardy ducks, residents of the far north, stay around in the region as long as there is any open water for them.

But, as happens almost every year, there was a surprise among the birds seen. Birds not expected on a local Christmas Bird Count may be those that typically live elsewhere, as we a varied thrush and rosy-finches sighted a few years ago.

Or it may be a very late migrant that got stranded here, as appears to have happened this year: A neighbor contacted me saying that they had a rusty blackbird in the yard. The bird was getting needed shelter and food among the trees and bird feeders there. The bird was photographed.

Rusty blackbirds are residents of the far north, nesting in the boreal forests in much of Canada. Winters are spent in the southern states. As with many of the kinds of blackbirds, migration proceeds in flocks.

I find the presence of blackbird flocks of rusty, Brewer’s, red-winged or grackles as being a regular part of the spring migration of March or April and the fall flight of October or November. I expect to see flocks of rusty blackbirds as I hike and bike in October.

It is not unusual for many of these birds to linger into November. If food is available and the weather is pleasant, they are in no hurry to leave.

I observed several flocks this November.

Perhaps what happened with the rusty blackbird seen on the count this year is that it paused a bit too long and the snow of early December, followed by the chilly weather, caught the bird by surprise. It got separated from the flock and needed to seek shelter and food as it did.

Not all of these unusual winter residents will survive the cold season, but it can happen, and so far this one appears to be coping with these conditions.

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.