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Local bird group sets North Dakota record

Twelve red-breasted nuthatches were counted during last Saturday's Christmas Bird Count; one of 68 species observed throughout the day. Keith Corliss

The potluck dinner was finished, most had already exited into the frosty still air last Saturday when I, too, thanked our hostess and made my way to the car, still scratching my head in awe. How had we done it?

Indeed, a loose-knit group of area birdwatchers had gone out that day to tally birds as part of the 113th running of the Christmas Bird Count (CBC), billed as the "largest and longest-running Citizen Science program in the world," according to the National Audubon Society's website. We gathered later that evening in Carol Spurbeck's home in north Fargo to compile the day's data from participants. Once combined and analyzed a glaring fact became apparent. Not only had we broken a record for number of species seen during the Fargo-Moorhead count with 68, but we had established a new North Dakota state record as well.

For background, the CBC began in 1900 as concern for the dwindling numbers of birds among scientists and others began to foster a conservation ethic. Prior to 1900, a holiday tradition known as the "Side Hunt" was common. People would choose sides (usually men of various ages), head out for the day and shoot every wild animal and bird they saw throughout the day, then pile them together. The team, or "side," with the biggest pile was declared the winner. By way of stark contrast, the first CBCers decided it might be instructive to count birds instead of shoot them.

Twenty-five CBCs were held that first year. Today there are over 2,200 and stretch from the Arctic Circle down to the southern tip of South America. Each count adheres to certain protocols such as the geographical size of the count (a 15-mile diameter circle), the range of possible dates (14 December - 5 January), and countable hours (midnight to midnight on the designated count day).

Roughly 30 individuals fanned out last Saturday with binoculars, winter boots, and maps to make an attempt to count every single bird within the Fargo-Moorhead CBC boundaries. It marked the 76th running of the local CBC whose count centers around a point just north and west of Fargo's Hector Airport. As a result, all of Fargo and Moorhead north of I-94 is within the countable ring as well as West Fargo (north of I-94), Kragnes, Harwood, and some of Dilworth.

Just how this particular count ring could total 68 species when just three years ago it had never topped 50 is worth some analysis. There are, in my opinion, a few factors involved.

First, this has been a better-than-average winter for northern birds. Our group got the expected species (common redpoll, pine siskin, and purple finch) but augmented the total with somewhat rarer ones like hoary redpoll, white-winged crossbill, and pine grosbeak.

Second, I cannot understate the input which comes from the Moorhead Crystal Sugar and city lagoons. No less than 13 species of waterfowl were counted Saturday, all but one from this location. Included were winter oddities such as wood duck, ring-necked duck, redhead, ruddy duck, and northern pintail.

Finally, there is power in numbers. It seems quite a few more birders are taking part these day. A 15-mile diameter circle encompasses over 176 square miles. There is no possible way to see it all. But with more watching eyes, fewer birds go uncounted.

This notion is backed up by Spurbeck, who has been birding in Fargo for "50-something" years. When asked how we had come to count so many birds Saturday, she said, "Just more people in the field. We could never cover all of it in the past." She described how hard it was many years ago when, "we would start with eight or nine people in my area then they would dwindle away because someone had to go home and stir the caramels or something. By day's end, Pete Aschbacher and I would end up walking along the Red River ourselves."

The huge benefit of more observers is that fewer individual birds escape notice. No less than 18 of Saturday's total species were single birds. Sujan Henkanaththegedara, an NDSU post-doctoral biology student from Sri Lanka, found the count's lone western meadowlark near the Sheyenne Diversion in West Fargo. "I knew it was a special bird," he said.

As part of the effort, some were even out in the early morning dark to listen for owls, including rural Harwood resident, Carol Arzt, who used a recording of a wounded rabbit to lure a great horned owl. "It came in so silent, it was such a thrill for me," she said, adding, "I was tired Sunday but it was fun, I had a great time."

Longtime area birder, Dennis Wiesenborn, posed an interesting question in the aftermath of Saturday's record-breaking effort in an email: "Is this really going to be the norm for the future?" It's impossible to predict the future, of course, but by using the past three Fargo-Moorhead CBCs as indicators, it certainly seems as if the group can continue to amass high count numbers as long as it can maintain or even grow the number of observers.