Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Pine County Christmas Bird Count 2006

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.


Anonymous said...

I'm not much of a birder, but I love the excitement. Merry Third Day of Christmas, Deb! I hope some of the people you met become fast friends.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a good day out with some new pals. I've never participated in the Christmas count, but my brother does ... or used to at least. He's single and actually has time to do stuff :)

Anonymous said...

There are a pair of Gray Jays that are showing up occasionally on our deck, or nearby the yard, this fall and "winter". They appear to be wintering here (rural duluth,mn region). I'd never seen them outside of the boundary waters before. Why they moved this far south, I can only attribute to warming, climate change.
- "WF" of raisingfrolic

the dharma bum said...

great post deb. everything i look for... nature close to home, friendship, adventure, exploration, discovery, etc. really, just loved reading this. so glad you had such a cool day. merry christmas!

the dharma bum said...

right after posting that, i found this article from The Boston Globe that I thought you might find interesting:

Christmas counters find fewer birds going south

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a wonderful day! How did you find the group you surveyed with?

Deb said...

madcap- Merry Third Day (Three French Hens?) to you too! Yeah, I know I could probably bond with some of these birders.

FC- I think I knew about this count a year or two ago, but my excuse was I didn't have time/had to take off work/etc. No excuses this year.

WF- It's an interesting thing, seeing gray jays going south while other species stay north! I love knowing they're around, but I can't help but think it's a sign of strange weather...

dharma bum- thanks, glad you enjoyed the account of the day. And thanks for the article, that seems very much like what the Minnesota counts have been showing.

Lynne- I did a search for Minnesota Christmas bird count and came up with this site: gives all the details for Christmas bird counts in Minnesota. I knew there was one here in Pine County but I didn't know who to contact. Once I contacted the leader, he assigned me to a group for the day. Also, the Minnesota Ornithologists' Union has a listserv that is a great way to keep track of birding events and sightings in Minnesota. Their Web site is

Maybe you could come up for Pine County next year!