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Flight Lines: Recent bird survey exceeds expectations again

Found on 51 percent of past Fargo-Moorhead Christmas Bird Counts, red-breasted nuthatches were not recorded during most recent CBC. Keith Corliss / Forum Communications Co.

It was thought by many experts that the record would never be broken; the human body just cannot accomplish such a feat, a four-minute mile is not possible they said. Then on May 6, 1954, British runner Roger Bannister did the unthinkable on an Oxford track by clocking the mile run in 3:59.4. Having once broken through this mostly psychological fence, countless others quickly followed.

In a similar fashion the local Christmas Bird Count (CBC) faced a seemingly unbeatable barrier of sorts. Despite Fargo-Moorhead's CBC having been conducted for over 70 years, local bird watchers had never recorded 50 species during a count day. They'd managed a 48-species day twice (2006, 2009) but that was as close as they'd come.

Then came the CBC on Saturday, December 18, 2010, when out of the blue 59 different bird species were tallied, shattering the old record and relegating the 50-species hurdle to a mere afterthought. How was it that a symbolic measure which had stood as a monument to ultimate success was so easily eclipsed? Quite simply it was thorough preparation combined with rigorous individual efforts. Not too far removed, I would imagine, from what it took Roger Bannister to succeed.

Perhaps even more interesting was the final count of the just-finished 2011 CBC which took place Sunday, December 18. The month was unseasonably warm and snowless which, for reasons unknown, made finding birds up to that point a little difficult. The day itself was a record setter, topping out at 55 degrees. Still, by the end of the day 54 species had been counted making it two consecutive years of topping the 50-species mark. Like the four-minute mile, once passed it becomes that much easier to repeat the feat.

As background, the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count was started in 1900 in a few locations as a counter to a popular holiday contest known as the "Side Hunt," where folks would go out and shoot virtually anything that moved in hopes of ending the day with the largest pile of critters. Instead of shooting birds, originator Frank Chapman reasoned, why not count them? And so the longest running citizen-science survey in the world continues to this day, having enjoyed its 112 consecutive event this year which included over 2100 count circles (each CBC boundary is a 15-mile diameter circle around a fixed point). Census results from the numerous CBCs around the country produce a tremendous amount of data which is available to anyone looking to take the pulse of early winter bird populations in the U.S. and has been used to help formulate various conservation strategies over the years.

During the most recent Fargo-Moorhead count there were some conspicuous "misses" as well as a handful of pleasant surprises like any single count day. Among those not seen this year were mourning dove (usually a few still hanging around), horned lark (seen in roughly half the years), common redpoll (seen in about 2/3 of the counts), and red-breasted nuthatch (another fairly common winter species).

Easily the most intriguing bird found was eastern bluebird; in fact there were two of them. Sometime during the middle part of the day my cell phone rang. Matt Mecklenburg, a fire boss at The Nature Conservancy's Glyndon station, informed me he had just seen an eastern bluebird near Sheyenne Gardens in Harwood (the second would be located in Oakport Township). I knew of no winter records for this species in Cass or Clay County (as of this writing I still can't find any). I was stunned.

On a par with the bluebirds were the two snow geese spotted at Moorhead's lagoon system. This species had never been recorded during a Fargo-Moorhead CBC but with open water you never really know what will show up. A total of 10 different waterfowl species were noted at the lagoons that day, a historically high number.

In reality the oft-repeated notion that experts believed the four-minute mile would never be broken is a myth. People knew it would happen; it was only a matter of time. Likewise the local 50-species CBC limit was itching to be broken as several local birders predicted. Now having done it two years in a row some wonder if 60 or 65 species is possible. With the world record mile currently standing at 3:43.13, I wouldn't rule it out.