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Flight Lines: Area birdwatchers find 50 species (again) during annual count

This Brown Thrasher made an appearance in Jim Rauch's West Fargo yard December 14; only the 7th time this species has been seen during the 77 years of the Fargo-Moorhead Christmas Bird Count. Jim Rauch

“This will rank in my top two for overall coldest,” said retired educator and Dayton, Ohio-area birder Daryl Michael after spending the day looking for birds as part of Fargo-Moorhead’s Christmas Bird Count (CBC) Saturday, December 14. Michael’s goal is to do at least one in all 50 states before he’s done. North Dakota was his 37th.

The annual CBC, begun by ornithologist Frank Chapman at the turn of the century after concern over declining bird populations began to arise, is currently in its 114th year. The first one involved 27 people in 25 different circles (each count is defined by a 15-mile diameter ring around a specific latitude/longitude point). Chapman’s initial effort has exploded into over 2,300 circles spanning the Western Hemisphere with over 70,000 participants today. The National Audubon Society, which administers the count, calls it “the longest running Citizen Science survey in the world.”

Fargo-Moorhead’s 77th count looked to be relatively low from the outset. The meager table was set in late September when Ontarian Ron Pittaway issued his annual and much anticipated finch forecast, based largely upon natural food sources available for birds heading into winter in his native Canada. “This is not an irruption year for winter finches…limited movements southward…are expected,” he wrote. This wasn’t too surprising given the incredible numbers of pine grosbeaks, red crossbills, and others that showed up last winter. Still, it wasn’t welcome news.

Then came early December and the quick arrival of very cold weather. Day upon day of below normal high temperatures very likely pushed out some birds that had the potential to linger around through count day. Casual surveys of existing bird feeders also looked bleak. Well less than half the feeders I saw leading up to the 14th were empty. High seed prices? Who knows?

The count morning’s light but persistent snowfall was another setback. The few yard feeders that did have food in them were now covered with a fresh blanket, preventing birds from even accessing them. Finally there was this topper: The day’s cold air produced a thick heavy fog which blanketed the American Crystal Sugar lagoons in Moorhead where our counters usually find an impressive number of waterfowl, including some rare ones. This year, however, they were blinded.

Still, once all the tallying had been completed at the Red River Zoo that night, 40 area birders and eight dedicated feeder watchers racked up a somewhat unexpected 50 species on the day, the fourth year in a row we’ve counted 50 or above. Making this count fairly impressive is the fact Fargo-Moorhead’s count had never reached that mark until 2009, yet achieved it again despite the obstacles.

A few data points from the results are worth mentioning. High number records were set for Red-bellied Woodpeckers (15), Red-winged Blackbirds (39), Northern Shrikes (10), and Eastern Bluebirds (2). Of particular significance were the Eastern Bluebirds and a lone White-crowned Sparrow—each counted only for the third time ever. In addition, making the list for only the 7th occasion, a single Brown Thrasher was spotted at Jim Rauch’s feeders in West Fargo.

The 2013 version of the Fargo-Moorhead CBC is now in the books. We might not see the itinerant Mr. Micheal here for next year’s count (already on the calendar for Saturday, Dec. 20), but he will remember this one. “I will call this the ‘Carousel Count,’” he said, referring to the ride everyone got at the post-count get-together. “That was a nice touch.”

Moreover, Michael was paired for the day with fellow West Fargoan, Dean Riemer, who made a special effort to make the visitor’s experience a positive one. “Within the first 15 minutes Dean got me a life bird, gray partridge,” said Michael. The two had never met but the thread of commonality ties birdwatchers together instantly. “That’s the beauty of this,” he said. “We didn’t know each other. But wherever I’ve gone there is that sharing of experiences, the sharing of birds…it’s what makes it worth doing.”