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Christmas Bird Counts showcase avian trends

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Two red-bellied woodpeckers were observed in this year's Itasca State Park bird count. While there were none spotted in the Bemidji count, event organizer Doug Johnson saw this one at the suet feeder in his yard outside of Bemidji. Submitted photo.

Christmas Bird Counts have been taking place in December for 30 years in Bemidji and around 25 years at Itasca State Park. They show trends in bird populations, ranges and habitat and may also be an indicator of how climate change is impacting birds in the northwoods.

Among the highlights at Itasca State Park count was the appearance of wild turkeys, with a record high count of 27.

Itasca State Park naturalist Connie Cox, who coordinated the count, said it was also a good year for viewing bald eagles, with 20 birds seen, including one sighting with 12 bald eagles. “That total of 20 eagles was a big jump from the previous total of 12 in the 2018 count,” she said.

Another observation Cox shared that was northern birds, which are sometimes active during the counts, have not yet made their way down to this area.

“Pine siskins, pine grosbeaks and redpolls are not present yet for the most part since bumper pine cone and seed crops in Canada are providing the necessary food for the northern species,” she said.

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In Bemidji, this was the first count where a red-winged blackbird and a brown thrasher, both considered migratory birds, were sighted.

Webers share count memories

John and Marlene Weber of Nevis have taken part in most of the Itasca State Park counts during the past 25 years.

John said the red-winged blackbird and thrasher in the Bemidji count is unusual. “Now with climate crisis, all the stops are out,” he said. “I heard them talking about those sightings in Bemidji. They were quite unusual, so they had to have extra documentation.”

Marlene said, according to her 1987 edition of “Bob Jansen’s Birds in Minnesota,” the summer range for brown thrashers includes the northern half of Minnesota, but their winter range is the southern half of the U.S., although they can be “casual residents” further north in the winter by surviving off feeders.

“But, oh my, that’s very unusual to see a brown thrasher in the winter,” she said. “I never have, but with climate change they’re kind of confused, probably. We used to see them occasionally up here in the summer. They are about the size of blue jays and like edges like brush piles. You’ll see them in hedgerows and shelterbelts. I’ve seen them on the migratory bird count up here in May, on one road along the edge of a field with shrubs.”

However, she added that occasionally birds hang around and don’t migrate if they are not feeling well. “Hopefully, those two birds will make it through the winter ok,” she said.

During their 25 years of Itasca bird counts, Marlene said one trend she has noticed is that they used to see a larger variety of birds in the area they cover in the middle of the woods.

Her most memorable bird count is when they saw the first wild turkeys.

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“It was the first thing in the morning in 2008, and we were driving along a road and saw a big pine tree filled with roosting turkeys, all covered with frost,” she said. “It was just fantastic.”

Itasca State Park Christmas Count

Cox said 15 people were out documenting this year’s count. There were only 869 birds sighted this year compared with 1,141 in 2018.

The top five birds sighted were black-capped chickadees (225), blue jays (197, the highest count ever recorded at Itasa with 180 seen in 1975 being the second highest number spotted),

common ravens (66), red-breasted nuthatches (44) and white-breasted nuthatches and purple finches (39 of each).

Black-billed magpies also had a high showing with 27 individual birds seen, the next closest number being 12 birds in 1976.

Rounding of the list were house sparrows (28), European starlings (25), downy woodpeckers and American crows (23 each), rock pigeons (22), hairy woodpeckers (20), American goldfinches (15), pileated woodpeckers (9), ruffed grouse (9), northern shrikes and common redpolls (3 each), red-bellied woodpeckers (2) and one each of rough legged hawks, pine grosbeaks and crow/raven species.

Cox said one of the interesting things about this year’s count was that one of the participants also took part in the New York bird count in Brooklyn where on a day with milder than average temperatures they had the highest number of species ever recorded at 129, including sightings of warblers and orioles that had not yet migrated.

Bemidji bird count

“We had, not surprisingly, given the cold weather and limited open water, a relatively low number of species, with few waterfowl seen, Douglas Johnson said. “However, we had record numbers of trumpeter swans and wild turkeys, both of which are increasing rapidly in the local breeding population.”

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Johnson has been the compiler, main organizer and reporter to the National Audubon Society for the Bemidji count for about 10 years.

“I have participated in the bird count for each of the last 30 years since 1989,” he said. “I was also the compiler and organizer of the Itasca State Park count since the count, which took place sporadically in the 1970s, was restarted about 25 years ago. We have an avid core of participants who help out yearly. A special mention should go out to Noel Benson of Bemidji who has taken part in just about every Bemidji count since they began in the 1970s and has also been on the Itasca count for the last 25 years.”

During all of the years of the Bemidji count, Johnson said about 90 species have been tallied.

“On average, we see about 30 species, which is dependent on the amount of open water for keeping species up north,” he added.

A total of 26 species were observed during this year’s count. Black-capped chickadees topped the list with 268 birds observed, followed by rock pigeons (124), American crows (106), blue jays (101) and house sparrows (60) to round off the top five.

Also counted this year were 57 wild turkeys, 57 European starlings, 40 trumpeter swans, 33 cedar waxwings, 32 white-breasted nuthatches, 30 common ravens, 20 downy woodpeckers,

14 mallards, 12 bald eagles, 12 red-breasted nuthatches, 11 hairy woodpeckers, 8 pileated woodpeckers, 7 black-billed magpies and 4 ruffed grouse.

The lowest numbers in the bird count were common goldeneye, hooded mergansers and American goldfinches with two each and rough-legged hawks, brown thrashers and red-winged blackbirds with one each.

Related Topics: BIRDS
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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