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Itasca bird count part of larger effort

Doug Johnson noted 28 species of birds in the Itasca State Park count compared with 33 species in Bemidji. (Lorie Skarpness/Enterprise)

Itasca State Park's 22nd annual Winter Bird Count Monday was part of a much larger effort to help collect data about how climate change is threatening bird populations nationwide and how conservation groups can work together to protect their habitat.

The Itasca State Park count included 12 participants in the field and six feeder watchers in the area around the park. The weather was mild with light snow in the afternoon. According to Doug Johnson, the compiler of data for both the Itasca and Bemidji counts, 28 species of bird were noted at Itasca, including a record number of 14 rough-legged hawks.

Participants at this year's count ranged from first-time birders to a master birder from Texas. Dividing into six teams, they covered a seven-and-one-half-mile radius from 8 a.m. until 3:30 p.m.

Unusual sightings included a late-belted kingfisher along the upper stretch of the Mississippi River and a red-winged blackbird visiting a feeder when it should have already flown south for the winter.

"Good numbers of gray jays were found in the Lake Alice Bog, which was encouraging as the species has grown scarce in recent years," Johnson said. "Unfortunately, the great gray owl and red crossbills seen along Wilderness Drive in the park in the days leading up to the count were not found on Monday, and one of the many snowy owls that have invaded from the tundra and was seen in the days leading up to the count in the fields north of the park could not be found."

Park Naturalist Connie Cox explained that not everyone who participates in the bird count is out walking on the trail — some drive with their windows down and listen for bird calls, then stop to count.

"Some participants may drive 60 miles in the count area which includes the Lake Alice bog, Little Mantrap and the Hart Lake areas," she said.

Bernis Ingvaldson of Bagley said this was her first time taking part in a bird count.

"I've wanted to do this since I moved up here," she said. "It was nice going with an experienced birder (Kelly Larson, also of Bagley) because I learned a lot from her about identifying birds from their calls and that a red squirrel's chatter is not a bird call. She laughed when I kept saying I heard another 'yank yank' bird, but by the end of the morning I was calling it a nuthatch."

Their most memorable moment came in the morning when they saw a bald eagle circling near the headwaters of the Mississippi and found the carcass from a recent deer kill where the eagle and some chickadees were feeding. Cox said the deer appeared to be a late-drop fawn that was most likely killed by a bobcat.

Larson said her most memorable count experience was at the Beltrami Island State Forest a few years ago.

"It was a cold, lonely place," she said. "The temperature was 27 degrees below zero with a 46-degree-below-zero windchill. I was making the gray jay call and a goshawk flew in and tried to capture the gray jays that were coming toward me. I also saw a sharp-tailed grouse that day."

Master Birder Tom Haase of Fort Worth, Texas participated in both the Bemidji and Park Rapids counts, giving him the distinction of being the birder who traveled the farthest.

Haase said he enjoys coming "up north" to participate in birding events because he gets to see different species, like the gray jay, pileated woodpecker and rough-legged hawk. He is participating in four winter bird counts this year, going to two in Texas in addition to the Minnesota counts. He said that overdevelopment in the Fort Worth area, where he has participated in the Audubon Society counts for the past 14 years, has greatly impacted bird species.

"It has been especially hard on the roadrunner, which is now rarely sighted," he said.

John and Marlene Weber of Nevis said this was one of the nicer weather days for the count during their years of taking part in the annual event.

"We've been out on days ranging from 31 degrees below zero to 44 degrees above with thick fog," he said. "The birds were more active on the below zero day, but it was hard to count them in the fog."

The biggest change the Webers have seen in the bird counts is the lack of evening grosbeaks, a species that used to be common in this region.

Sandra Lichter of Emmaville is an Itasca State Park naturalist who also participated in Monday's count. She said her highlight was viewing two black-backed woodpeckers.

While participants in the park concluded their observations at 3:30 p.m., Cox said other observers in the count area may record nocturnal birds, such as owls, which may be identified by sight or sound.

Participants outside the park, but still within the "count circle," also call in results from their feeders. The type of birds observers encounter is largely dependent on their habitat and weather conditions the day of the count. In more open areas, blue jays, yellow finches, chickadees and nuthatches are common sightings, while in deeply forested areas brown creepers may be seen. Trekkers in wilderness areas may see more seclusive birds such as crossbills.

Bemidji Winter Bird Count

"The Bemidji bird count was also held in comfortably mild weather on Saturday, December 16, with 12 participants," Johnson said. "We found 33 species of birds, including an unusual lingering Towsend's Solitaire at Jaime Thibodeaux's feeder."

New high numbers for the Bemidji count were recorded for trumpeter swans, black-billed magpies and wild turkeys. In addition, good numbers of pine grosbeaks, common redpolls, and rough-legged hawks were found.

"Unfortunately, the snowy owl which had been hunting around the airport and the hospital could not be found on count day," Johnson said. "Waterfowl was scarce and evening grosbeaks stayed conspicuously absent."

Valuable data

Results from the Itasca bird count contribute to the National Audubon Society census that tracks bird populations and trends throughout the U.S.

As a result of data collected during the annual bird counts, the National Audubon Society was the first group to issue a climate change report in 2014. The report showed 314 of the 588 North American bird species studied are likely to be in trouble due to losing 50 percent of their current habitat by 2080. The Environmental Protection Agency included Audubon's climate change work in their report.

The Audubon Society census has been around longer than any other bird count, with this being its 118th year. The knowledge it provides about birds and their habitats is used to guide conservation efforts nationwide.

The count had its start in the 1800s when hunters had the holiday tradition of the Christmas "Side Hunt." According to the Audubon Society website, hunters chose competed to see who could bring in the most birds and animals. Due to concerns about declining bird populations, ornithologist Frank M. Chapman proposed the "Christmas Bird Census" with participants counting birds rather than killing them.