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More than 1,000 birds seen at Itasca count

Although temperatures approached 40 degrees Dec. 13 for the annual bird count at Itasca State Park, naturalist Connie Cox said a strong steady wind created problems.

A female purple finch and a redpoll share a meal at a tray feeder. A variety of factors have led to more northern migrants this year. Contributed / Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
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“It was slow,” she said. “This would seem a perfect mix for winter birds to be active, but that was not the case. We had variety, just not a large number of birds at any one location.”

Cox said 18 participants walked, drove and skied in and around the park from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with all groups reporting a slower than normal amount of bird activity.

One interesting observation was how the warm temperatures allowed insects to become active.

“I saw insects hopping across the cold snow, and insects were most likely active on the warm tree bark as well,” Cox said. “Birders reported finding birds feeding in the branches of conifers, hidden amongst the dark pine needles. These insects provided a protein-packed meal for the birds that can be hard to come by in the colder time of winter.”

Birds less active due to wind

Cox said that steady south-east winds clocked at 17 miles per hour kept birds hunkered down. “Fewer birds were seen in flight, with many working the lower branches of shrubs or down in ditches,” she said.


The four bird-feeder observers also noted a slower than normal amount of bird activity around their feeders.

“Feeder watchers tend to discover daily patterns in birds as they watch throughout the winter season,” Cox said. “One of the feeder watchers, Pat Evenwoll, commented that her pileated woodpecker that comes every day wasn’t as active as normal. She also noticed that the pileated didn’t do his final evening ‘knock’ on wood after his last feeding, which usually indicates that he is going to bed for the night.”

Preliminary results

Cox said that even though individual numbers were lower for repeat counters, the total number of species and total number of birds were still well represented. At the time of this article, Cox is still waiting for all counters to report in numbers.

Preliminary numbers show 25 species of birds with 1,018 individual birds counted. Good showings by year-round birds included 14 ruffed grouse, 310 black-capped chickadees, 55 red-breasted nuthatches and 34 white-breasted nuthatches.

More northern migrants this year

Northern migrant species that are coming south from Canada were also reported on the count, including pine grosbeaks, redpolls, pine siskins, crossbills and snow buntings. Steve Weston with the Minnesota Ornithologists Union (MOU) shared information with the winter bird count coordinators about these winter birds.

Predictions that drought and wildfires in Canada to the west of Lake Superior this past summer have created conditions that may be pushing species such as pine grosbeaks further south, Weston said. Poor fruit and cone crops in Canada and the Arrowhead Region of Minnesota are also pushing white-winged crossbills into the U.S., including high numbers in Minnesota.

Redpolls and pine siskins appeared in the Itasca area on Dec. 14, just in time for the first day of the Audubon Christmas bird count that runs from Dec. 14 through Jan. 5, Weston said..

Weston said snowy owls are being reported all around the state and down into Iowa.


“It appears to be the start of a snowy irruptive winter,” he said in an email about bird trends for this winter. “However, there are almost no reports of great gray owls.”

Red Crossbills are forecast to be slightly higher than average for Type 2 and 4 in our area. Few

sightings have been reported outside of the north, but it should not be a bad year, Weston said.

Weston said last year was a “major irruption year” for evening grosbeaks. “This year widespread reports already indicate that it will be another good count in Minnesota,” he said.

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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