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BIRDWISE: Christmas Bird Counts provide valuable information

Common redpolls are back this winter, but so far not in last year's numbers.

I must confess to being an Arizona "snowbird," so I have not been experiencing the local Minnesota winter firsthand.

My main eye into the winter bird scene in our part of the state has been the Minnesota Ornithologists' Union list server. For better or worse, this list server emphasizes rare species or species simply rare for the season — target species for the hard-core birder. But it has not been a good source for depicting the general "landscape" of our winter bird populations. For example, are some of the finches that can be common in some winters but absent in others present this winter? What about Bohemian waxwings, the larger and more colorful cousin of the cedar waxwing? Are more summer birds than usual wintering in the north woods?

For these kinds of questions, the Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) are a valuable source of information. In these single-day counts in December or early January, volunteer birders spend the entire day in assigned sectors of a 15-mile-diameter circle recording the total number of individuals of each species encountered. So, the results provide a reasonable snapshot of the total bird community, including the relative abundances of species.

Given this, I was very pleased to see Lorie Skarpness' excellent coverage of the CBCs at Itasca State Park and Bemidji in the Dec. 22 Enterprise. Her article revealed what is really happening this winter season.

Of special interest to me was the occurrence of evening grosbeaks at Itasca for the first time in five years. If you recall a previous column, I mentioned the near disappearance of this species here and its likely relation to the decline of spruce budworm infestations in Canada. These grosbeaks are among my favorite winter visitors because of their stunning beauty and despite their predilection for depleting sunflower seeds at a rate that puts squirrels to shame.

I have a soft spot in my heart for the Itasca CBC. Along with fellow grad students and University of Minnesota professors, I helped organize the first one in 1972. This count is especially memorable because the starting temperature on the thermometer was 48 degrees below zero (-54 degrees the following morning!), warming to a balmy -27 degrees by dusk. Amazingly though, birds were very active and clearly more tolerant of the cold than we mere mortals were. Ten minutes outside the warm car was about all we could manage!

The results of this year's counts at Itasca and Bemidji show clearly that many of our on-and-off winter residents are well represented in our area: common redpolls, pine grosbeaks, pine siskins, purple finches and Bohemian waxwings. Hopefully, many of you are seeing some of these species at your feeders or in your fruiting trees and shrubs.

Though the Arizona winter can be a nice respite from the serious cold, I do miss being able to go out and see these great Minnesota winter birds. I just may have to reconsider my decision to become a snowbird...