My Christmas gift to myself this year happened today. The gift was this: taking the day off of work and household responsibilities and participating in the local Christmas Bird Count. I have been interested in birds practically all my life, have been awakening my senses to the bird life in this area ever since we moved here, but until now I had never thought of going on a birding venture with other people, or for that matter, spending a whole day purposefully birding.
I should qualify that "never" thing. I did participate in a Christmas bird count once, seventeen years ago when I was a graduate student in wildlife and fisheries at South Dakota State in Brookings. I was friends with a couple undergraduates and research assistants who were into birding, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. However, being the early twentyish student I was, I had gone out the night before and when sunrise rolled around I had a mean hangover. I only recall sitting in the back seat, pretending to be involved and raising my cheap binoculars once in a while, and wishing for the day to be over. A lot has changed since then. I don't get hangovers anymore.
To summarize: It was a wonderful day. The weather was mild, although a bit more overcast than I would have liked. I ended up riding around with a carload of wonderful people, whose passion for birds clearly showed. I ended up learning a bit about birding, but yet I was able to contribute some observations and local perspective of my own.
The participants in this county's bird count are by and large birders from the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area. I had an advantage; in some free time yesterday I drove around scouting some of the routes in the area I was assigned to. This proved later to be priceless.
We started off by seeing a northern shrike, which later we would see two more of. That was a good omen. Our common finds for the day included tons of chickadees, some pigeons and starlings and English sparrows (please note my contempt at seeing the latter three), a few flocks of redpolls, and crows and ravens, among other things. Two pileated woodpeckers made a timely appearance, and we found a pair of northern cardinals, which rarely overwinter here.
However, there were a few significant moments that really made my day. The first was walking into a heavy conifer woods right in the nearest town to me, and after having a flock of chickadees practically landing on my head, seeing a gray jay land eight feet above my head. After observing how it flew, I can practically confirm that my late October sighting was indeed a gray jay. I wasn't sure that those were around here, but now I know!
Another moment was seeing a sharp-tailed grouse about a mile away from my place. We have ruffed grouse around here, but I didn't know there were sharptails anywhere nearby. And I wouldn't, had it not been for our fearless leader, who picked out what I would have seen as a blob in a tamarack. We were treated to a good view that confirmed the features that differed from the ruffed grouse.
Speaking of ruffed grouse, I spotted six of them eating buds in trees, when it was getting dark and we were wrapping up for the day. We had seen two grouse in the same spot a half hour earlier, but it was amazing to see the others that had joined them.
But the sighting that totally made my day was one that was a new sighting for this particular Christmas bird count, one that I had seen on my scouting drive yesterday and hoped to relocate. I had seen a male northern harrier while driving yesterday, and upon doing a little research when I got back home, found out that they normally don't winter around here, and that they had not been recorded in a prior Pine County Christmas bird count. So I mentioned it to the group leader and anxiously awaited the time when we arrived at the location. At first, no northern harrier.
Then, about a mile down the road, I spotted something with a lot of white perched atop a small tree, way across a field, so far it hardly registered, but I knew something was there. For the first time in the day I told the driver to stop, and for a brief flustered moment I hoped I had indeed seen something worth stopping for. I found it again, then the others found it: light-morph rough legged hawk. They set up spotting scopes just in time to see Part Two: the rough-legged flew from its perch, and suddenly another very light raptor flew up, seemingly from the ground, to engage in a small hawk-battle. I could not tell the difference, but I was overjoyed when someone yelled out "Harrier!" We found him! The two hawks circled and flew at each other before taking off in separate directions. I was breathless. What a beautiful sight.
All in all, it was a great day; it would have been great had I only seen the above display of hawks. But it was great because I saw that and so much else, shared it with some other passionate birders, and learned a bit about what exists so close to home. I really learned from the experience of the birders I was with, and found out that these people share a cameraderie and sense of humor. I really felt at ease with them, enough that I hope to join in more birding activities in the future.