Sunday, December 20, 2009

Christmas Bird Count

Yesterday Dave and I spent the morning driving the back roads east and west of Northfield, counting birds. We were participating in our first Christmas Bird Count (CBC) -- an annual Audubon Society event that dates back to 1900, in the early years of the conservation movement, when it was proposed as an alternative to a competitive Christmas hunting tradition. Audubon and other organizations use data collected in this longest-running wildlife census to assess the health and changing distributions of bird populations and to help guide conservation action.

Some CBC participants stay home and keep track of the birds they see in their yards; some walk through neighborhoods or through parks or nature trails; others, like us, cover a larger outlying area by car, getting out from time to time at promising spots like open water, thickets of trees, and so on. We drove quite slowly where it was safe to do so, pulling over from time to time to peer into fields or trees and to listen for birdcalls.

The countryside is divided into official
CBC record-keeping circles. Northfield is on the northern edge of the circle that includes Faribault on the southern edge and is called the Faribault circle. The top slice of the circle, including Northfield, is Area 8. Dave and I were assigned the two outer curved wings of that slice, with the town of Northfield itself and the nature areas of the two colleges being covered by plenty of other volunteers.

I took the photo below early in the outing, showing the division between two farm fields looking north from a road east of Northfield. The temperature was around 20 F. with quite a brisk wind blowing from the north. In terrain like this in the east section of our territory we saw several roadside flocks of dark-eyed juncoes and house sparrows, a dozen ring-necked pheasants gleaning corn from a harvested field, and -- almost invisible out in a field blending in with the clods of soil, and only spotted because we saw movement -- four horned larks, America's only true native lark (meadowlarks are actually in the same family as New World blackbirds and orioles) . I think this was a "life bird" (first time spotted) for me.

To the west of Northfield, we covered the area along Highway 1 to a point just west of I-35, but mostly east of the interstate and north of 1 but south of Highway 19. Here we found a greater variety of habitat, including some wooded and marshy areas. We saw a kestrel on a wire overhead, a bald eagle soaring close enough that we could hear its distinctive, high-pitched cry, and a flock of common redpolls -- these actually a life bird for Dave despite his many years of birdwatching; we are near the southern limit of their winter grounds, and they don't appear here consistently, though I remember having them at my feeder in Northfield a number of years ago. He had not known them to visit his feeders when he lived in Minneapolis.

The magnificent old oak tree below was just off a winding section of one of the north-south roads on the west side, across the road from more oaks and conifers where several downy woodpeckers were active and easily visible.

Here we were actually witnesses to a minor collision, as a local resident backed his pickup truck out of his driveway into the front bumper of an oncoming vehicle, which had stopped as it saw the truck coming and was even blowing its horn. They seemed to know each other and were quickly laughing about it, so we went on our way. By that time the morning was nearly over and we were starting to get stiff necks from craning to spot birds while driving, and tired eyes from a lot of binocular use.

We were invited back to the circle coordinator, Gene Bauer's, house for lunch, where we enjoyed some soup, compared notes with other volunteers, whom we had met at breakfast before we all set out, and filled in our official reporting forms. These included counts of each species identified, the miles driven or walked, and the time spent observing. Tracking the latter two items helps with the interpretation of data -- if walkers spent four hours covering two miles
on foot through a residential neighborhood, their count numbers will have a different interpretation than ours, where we spent about four hours covering 33 miles of mostly open countryside by car and clearly couldn't look with detail into every tree and field we passed.

Other birds we recorded seeing or hearing during the morning included crows, pigeons, blue jays, cardinals, goldfinches in drab winter plumage, black-capped chickadees, white-breasted and one red-breasted nuthatch, a hairy and a red-bellied woodpecker, and two red-tailed hawks. No wild turkeys, which surprised me a little, and only the one group of pheasants.

We enjoyed the morning's birdwatching, meeting some birdwatchers we hadn't known before, and the feeling that we were contributing to a useful body of data. I imagine this will be a new Christmas-season tradition for us.

Merry Christmas, and a joyous new year to all.

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