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Flight Lines: Difficult conditions don't stop local bird count; local birders take part in hemisphere-wide census

A rough-legged hawk--a high Arctic nesting bird--sits warming itself in the sun near the Fargo landfill last Saturday. It was one of eight seen during the Fargo-Moorhead Christmas Bird Count. By Keith Corliss.1 / 2
Surprisingly, five species of upland game birds were counted last Saturday during the Fargo-Moorhead Christmas Bird Count. Included were these gray partridge feeding in a field in south Fargo. By Keith Corliss. 2 / 2

I can only imagine the thoughts bouncing around in Mr. Chapman's mind as the holidays drew nearer every year during the latter part of the 19th century. The sights and sounds must have been a source of building anxiety, all those piles of fur and feathers, that continuous distant gunfire. He must have reached a point where he'd had enough.

There existed a tradition at the time known as a "side hunt," where families gathering for Christmas would head out into the field and shoot everything that moved-- animal or bird--and make a heap of the carcasses. The winners of this inglorious contest were the ones with the largest mound.

The notion of conservation was just getting a foothold in the country and ornithologist Frank Chapman and a few others were becoming concerned by dwindling wildlife populations. Instead of shooting animals and birds, Chapman proposed an alternative: Counting them. So on Christmas Day, 1900, the Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC) was born.

Since that first year, bird watchers everywhere in the Western Hemisphere (there are now over 2,200 counts) have left the warmth of their homes and headed out into the field to census the birds in their area as part of the longest running citizen science project in the world.

The counts are not just willy-nilly random efforts; there are standards to be adhered to. Each one is a 15-mile diameter circle, for instance, no more and no less; each is also a 24-hour event starting at midnight. And each circle can set their count date anywhere from 10 days prior to Christmas to 10 days after.

The National Audubon Society's webpage aptly describes the purpose: "The data collected by observers over the past century allow Audubon researchers, conservation biologists, wildlife agencies and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America." In essence, the count is an annual snapshot of bird populations from the same moment in time, a worthwhile dataset.

Last Saturday marked the 80th running of the Fargo-Moorhead count, a cold and challenging day with temperatures below zero in the early morning and dropping all day. "It was the coldest CBC I have ever been on," remarked Patrick Beauzay of rural Hawley. In the face of these harsh conditions, 31 people set out driving, walking, and skiing while another dozen watched their bird feeding stations at home.

The local birders ended up counting 59 species on the day, the seventh year in a row the Fargo-Moorhead circle has topped the 50 mark after never having done so prior to 2010.

As I look over the results, a few things stand out. A distinct lack of northern finches marked this year's count with zero grosbeaks, zero pine siskins, zero crossbills, and only a single common redpoll. Making up for that shortfall was a surprising five species of upland game birds including sharp-tailed grouse and greater prairie chicken, two rare species near town. Five owl species were also found including four short-eared owls, another uncommon occurrence. The Moorhead lagoons produced the usual good numbers of waterfowl from its artificially warm ponds. In that mix were rarities like bufflehead and American black duck.

Every count year is unique in a way and every one produces its share of memorable tales. Moorhead's Hebe Shipp said, "It's like a treasure hunt, you never know when something unexpected and stunning will appear." Early Saturday morning, counter Becky Gilbertson happened to mention never having seen a snowy owl in her life. Moments later she was taking photographs of one northwest of Fargo.

The hard work and dedication of the individuals in this area and beyond is admirable to say the least. The common thread among them appears to be a certain commitment to each other and to science.

"It's personally gratifying to participate in and contribute to one of the oldest and largest citizen science efforts in the world," said Beauzay.

Shipp said, "There is a terrific feeling of camaraderie as we are together on a mission," adding, "The CBC is just about the only thing that can get me outside and walking the fields in those most bitter temps."

With sentiments like that expressed every year, Mr. Chapman's legacy is in no danger of ending, nor is the body of data collected every holiday. The Christmas Bird Count will continue far into the future however cold or mild that day turns out to be.