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Christmas Bird Count at Itasca State Park provides valuable data

Itasca State Park will hold its bird count Tuesday, Dec. 14 from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., while in Bemidji the count is planned for Saturday, Dec. 18.

Rare birds, such as the black-backed woodpecker, can be seen on winter bird counts if one knows where to look. Contributed / Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
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Both are part of the larger nationwide Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC) and have been going on for 122 years.

The CBC is the world's longest-running wildlife census. Bird counts are held from Dec. 14, 2021 through Jan. 5, 2022 at sites throughout the U.S., Canada and many other countries in the Western Hemisphere.

Information gathered at specific sites over a 24-hour period is summarized by scientists to gain insight about bird populations and patterns.

“This is the 27th consecutive year that the bird count has been held at Itasca State Park, from 1995 to the present,” Itasca State Park naturalist Connie Cox said. “This will also mark a total of 38 years of counts at the park. The first counts began in 1972 and ran for 11 years (1972-82). Then there was a gap before Doug Johnson from Bemidji resumed the counts. I have helped coordinate with him since 1996.”

Out in the field

Volunteers will explore various areas in the park in search of winter bird residents and may stay a few hours or spend the whole day.


“Participating in the bird counts gets you out into nature,” Cox said. “Over the years, I have had the chance to watch the fluctuation of winter migrants. It is when you happen upon the birds as they engage in winter survival that is exciting, such as snowshoeing in an area to find birds and having a ruffed grouse flush out from under the snow right before your feet. Or spotting a bald eagle perched on the top of a spruce tree. Discovering a brown creeper tucked behind the loose bark of a pine tree or flushing a flock of white-winged crossbills from along the roadside as they feed on grit. It is those sudden experiences with nature that are rewarding.”

Itasca count will be ‘minimal contact’

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, volunteers will not be gathering before this year’s survey.

“We want everyone to feel safe, so we are going to be semi-contactless,” Cox said. “Any new counters will need to be an experienced birder and able to go out on their own, as we need to reduce contact such as traveling in enclosed vehicles as a group. Carpooling may occur within existing familiar or social ‘pod’ groups.”

Anyone planning to participate in the bird count needs to register prior to the count date by email or phone. There will be a spot outside of the Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center beginning at 7:30 a.m. for those who need to get papers and maps for recording birds.

“We will not be gathering as a group inside for a group lunch and briefing this year,” Cox said.

“However, the Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.”

Benefitting birds

“Data collected in a long-running wildlife census can help in assessing the health of bird populations,” Cox said. “Over time, one can review population trends for bird species. Our data, compiled with data from across the country through the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, gives an overview of what is happening with specific bird species.

“People can track birds at the Audubon site: www.audubon.org/conservation/where-have-all-birds-gone. You can track by geography (such as state trends, country trends), or survey wide trends over time periods, or by specific states.”


This data, combined with other surveys such as Breeding Bird Survey or Project Feeder Watch, can provide a picture of how bird populations have changed in time and space. On a larger scale, the combined data collected over a long period of time can help guide conservation action.

Information collected is used to track migration patterns and changes in winter bird species throughout North America. To learn more about this nation-wide bird survey go to birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count

How to participate

Register for the Itasca bird count by calling 218-699-7251 or emailing constance.cox@state.mn.us.

To participate in the Bemidji bird count Dec. 18, contact Jaime Thibodeaux at 218-308-6853 or jaimethib@hotmail.com, or Becca Engdahl at 651-271-4038 or bemidjibecca@gmail.com.

Visit the Mississippi Headwaters Audubon Society Facebook page or spearheadmhas.org for more information.

The bird count helps identify trends in species. Black-capped chickadees are one of the birds most seen on counts. Contributed / Itasca State Park

Lorie Skarpness has lived in the Park Rapids area since 1997 and has been writing for the Park Rapids Enterprise since 2017. She enjoys writing features about the people and wildlife who call the north woods home.
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