It sounds as though 175 square miles constitute a sizable chunk of terra firma in which to census birds in a 24-hour period.
Yet that is precisely what each of over 2,200 volunteer groups is tasked with every year during the holiday season as part of the largest and longest-running citizen science project in the world. Since its humble beginning in 1900, Audubon’s annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) has been a steady and growing tradition for many bird watchers during this early winter period.
Ornithologist Frank Chapman started it; 25 counts were held that first season (each one is conducted within a 15-mile diameter circle around a specific latitude/longitude point). Today, count circles can be found throughout the Western Hemisphere, where on a chosen date between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5, bird watchers fan out with binoculars and clipboards in an effort to tally every bird encountered. In addition to birds, such information as temperature, snow cover, cloud conditions, wind and miles traveled is recorded.
Data collected over the decades by countless thousands of tired, frequently cold and thankless birders supply a wellspring of information for researchers, conservation biologists and environmental planners everywhere. Thought of as a comprehensive snapshot of midwinter bird populations, historic trends are tracked, health of individual populations monitored and action plans implemented. Fully 116 years of continuous data is available to all.
Fargo-Moorhead’s count isn’t quite that old, but it boasts 80 years worth of history. Dec. 19 was the date for the most recent F-M CBC. From midnight to midnight, some 35 volunteers – from a 15-year-old to a 70-something – in several different groups fanned out to census birds.
Each year brings a level of excitement and anticipation. In the days leading up to the count, scouting is conducted, leaders appointed, groups delineated and last-minute announcements passed along. By late December, most everyone is ready to get outside and put in a day of field work.
Unique this year was the extremely unlikely presence of a Scarlet Tanager frequenting a heated bird bath in north Fargo since early December. It marked North Dakota’s first-ever winter record for the species; the rest of its kind being in Central and South America by then. Everyone wondered, would it still be there on count day?
Prompted by the unfortunate passing of a longtime Fargo birder, a new feature was added to the F-M CBC, an award for the best bird seen during the count. Gary Nielsen was an accomplished naturalist, a mentor to many and a friend to all who knew him. His legacy lives on in the hearts of area birders as the trophy illustrates.
Fargo’s Becky Gilbertson was one of those setting out in the pre-dawn darkness. “Within minutes that morning, we heard three Great Horned Owls,” she said. Thus the count began.
At day’s end – with 658 miles driven and 37 miles walked in toto – 60 species (and over 11,000 individuals) had been tallied, the second-highest total ever and the sixth year in a row Fargo-Moorhead has racked up 50 species or more.
Birds of note included a Northern Mockingbird at Harwood’s Sheyenne Gardens, an American Wigeon in the Red River below the north dam, a White-crowned Sparrow north of Moorhead and a Savannah Sparrow seen at the old Fargo landfill, a first-ever.
As it turned out, the Scarlet Tanager was seen as late as 4 p.m. on the day before the count and looking “unhealthy,” according to reports. Despite a continuous vigil by the homeowner and periodic pop-ins by a few groups, the bird was not seen on count day or anytime thereafter.
What would have been a CBC first for North Dakota (Minnesota has never recorded one, either) ended up being eight hours shy of making history.
The 2016 F-M CBC is already on the calendar for Dec. 17. Abilities of all levels are invited to help out. Trust me, it’s a welcoming group of folks. “The team camaraderie and everyone’s passion for birds make it a very special day,” said Gilbertson.
Species recorded on the Christmas Bird Count
Great Horned Owl
White- breasted Nuthatch
American Tree Sparrow
Corliss is a West Fargo native, avid birder and a North Dakota Game and Fish instructor.