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Flight Lines: Local bird watchers raise bar with highest-ever count

Robert O'Connor returns from a chilly walk into a field last Saturday after verifying the identification of red-winged blackbirds found north of West Fargo.

Now what, Disneyland? It took until the 74th year of the Fargo-Moorhead Christmas Bird Count (CBC), but area observers finally topped the 50-species mark last Saturday. Indeed, so many birds were found that the previous record of 48 was not only surpassed, it was left in the dust. At day's end, a total of 58 species of birds were recorded, an amazing number for midwinter in the upper great plains.

For those unaware, the CBC, now in its 111th year of existence, began as a way to bring attention to an alarming situation taking place at the end of the 19th century. Some experts were noticing dramatic declines in bird populations and wondering why.

An easy target for conservationists was something called the "side hunt," an annual tradition at the time, which took place around Christmas. Family members would gather for the holiday then go out and shoot anything that moved in their immediate area. Pictures from that time show wagons full of fur and feathers. This was long before the notion of game laws or wildlife management came to be.

Ornithologist Frank Chapman conjured up an alternative to the side hunt, one where people would go out and census birds rather than shoot them. Thus, in 1900, the first CBC was born. That year, 25 different counts were held from California to New Jersey. Today, there are well over 2,000 counts held all over the Western Hemisphere.

Considered the longest running citizen-science effort in the world, the information from each count is not simply filed away in some dusty drawer. Rather, according to the National Audubon Society's webpage, "The data collected by observers over the past century allows researchers, conservation biologists, and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America."

To make the science more valid, all counts use the same protocols: A 15-mile-diameter circle and a midnight-to-midnight time frame. But each selects their own date - anywhere from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5.

As for the Fargo-Moorhead CBC, preparation actually began months ago when a few local birders strategized and plotted various ways to maximize the efforts during the 24-hour blitz. Bird feeders were placed in target areas, scouting of routes were accomplished in the prior days, and uncommon birds were noted and their locations marked in hopes of their staying put.

The 50-species threshold had been a target for quite some time and was in the back of everyone's mind on Saturday. It started at 6 a.m., when an eastern screech owl was located in West Fargo along the Sheyenne River, a bird which has become increasingly rare locally. That set the tone for the day's tally.

Fargo resident, Rick Gjervold, spent most of the day on cross-country skis near the Red River. He was able to find a barred owl in Mickelson Park. Amazingly, Matt Mecklenburg, an employee of the Nature Conservancy, was cruising the Harwood area when he happened upon a flock of 16 greater prairie chickens, a species not counted in the Fargo-Moorhead circle for decades. Robert O'Connor, an NDSU English Professor, trudged across a wind-swept field to verify the existence of 24 red-winged blackbirds.

Rural Harwood resident, Carol Arzt, helped with Sara Forness's West Fargo High School class by mentoring 20 Environmental Sciences students on property north of town. Even a late day e-mail from Fargoan Gary Nielsen added to the total. He had not formally taken part in the count, but mentioned seeing three rusty blackbirds while on his daily walk through the old Trollwood Park. Bingo, 58.

These stories and many more typify Saturday's fortunes. Every individual in every group contributed to the day's success in some way. Perhaps no one more so than Moorhead resident and prominent area birder, Dennis Wiesenborn, who tirelessly scouted the circle day and night leading up to the CBC.

Wiesenborn wrote of Saturday's record total, "This was the result of a tremendous effort helped by countless individuals; from those who trudged through the snow and drove up and down streets and rural roads to those who maintained well stocked feeders."

Now that the 50 number is in the rear-view mirror, can 60 be that far away?