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Long-running tradition offers winter challenge

The 15th of December marked the 71st time local bird enthusiasts braved the elements to take part in Fargo-Moorhead's version of the Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count (CBC). Nationally, this season represents the 108th running of the annual survey which seeks to count all the birds in designated 15-mile diameter rings.

Data gleaned from these surveys is used to plot population trends and general movements of birds. I hesitate to give much scientific credence to this effort - there are far too many uncontrollable variables to meet those standards. However, it can be an insightful tool if one doesn't try and lean too heavily on the data.

Fargo-Moorhead counters ended up with 46 different species, again short of the informal and never-reached goal of 50. It is personally frustrating not reaching that landmark number especially in light of the fact Grand Forks, Bismarck, and points all around us have done it.

There are various reasons for this, of course, with the main one being lack of available species. There simply aren't many birds around here in winter. Contrast our winter numbers to that of Corpus Christi, Texas, which recorded 238 species during last year's CBC - total which could represent a decent year in North Dakota.

Secondly, our little circle straddles two habitat extremes: cultivated fields with no grassland and urban zones. There is little in between. Fargo's Mark Otnes offered some perspective with regard to habitat, saying a person would be hard-pressed to find a similar sized community in the country with less open water, less woodland, less unplowed fields, and colder temperatures. He said, "I'm actually quite amazed we are able to find over 40 species year after year."

Still, given the fact that over the years, FM birders have recorded 110 species according to compiler Connie Norheim, 50 seems doable one of these years. What needs to happen? A sampling of participants gives rise to some suggestions.

First, we need good weather. Rick Gjervold, Fargo, remembers a recent count featuring a raging blizzard. He said, "There were more birders out than birds." Then the bird numbers have to be up. Otnes envisions the ideal as an extraordinary "winter finch invasion coupled with lingering migrants at feeders." Raising participant numbers would help greatly too - there were only 18 people covering about 176 square miles on Saturday. Dennis Wiesenborn of Fargo said, "There is no doubt in my mind that a number of species are overlooked every year." He reckons an article in the paper, two weeks before the event, would "help raise awareness, attract volunteers and solicit tips for noteworthy sightings."

All of these are factors which could lead to a 50-bird count one of these years. But is the number really that important? Perhaps not.

Most of the people I queried pointed to camaraderie as the main reason for doing the count in the first place. Bob O'Connor, Moorhead, said, "It's nice to get together with people who share my interest in birds." Gjervold even goes so far as to say it's "probably as important as anything."

Another motivator putting these folks out of doors is the possibility of spotting an uncommon bird. Keep in mind that uncommon can mean a quite common bird appearing while "December" is open on your refrigerator calendar. Dean Riemer, West Fargo, found a Townsend's solitaire last Saturday, a first ever for the count. Norheim sighted American coots at Moorhead's Crystal Sugar lagoons during the 2006 CBC.

Then there are those serendipitous moments cherished by birders everywhere. O'Connor, a veteran with many counts under his belt, remembers well the morning of his first FM CBC. While scanning an area north of Fargo he "suddenly realized the white knob on a post a few feet from me was a snowy owl."

Next year around this time, a few area birders will comb the area once again tallying species and counting individuals. Maybe it will be the year the FMers hit 50. Or maybe not. Whatever the motivations or reasons behind counting birds in the dead of winter, what really matters, I suppose, is just being a part of something you have a passion for. Like Gjervold said, "I have always thought of it as a holiday tradition."