Christmas is the time of eating, giving presents and ugly sweaters, people singing, programs at church, watching the same movie (from It’s a Wonderful Life to Love Actually), and even eating strange fish- inspired meals (lutefisk). Luckily, we only celebrate Christmas dinner with Swedish potato sausage which, in my opinion, is pretty good.
Something else that happens every Christmas ….is the Christmas Bird Count, the CBC. This tradition came about as something productive to replace the activity of going out and seeing how many birds one could shoot on Christmas Day. This year is the National Audubon Society’s 118th Christmas Bird Count, and all counts will be conducted between the dates of Thursday, December 14, 2017 and Friday, January 5, 2018. This isn’t just going out and counting birds. These are quite organized affairs. They are held in Sioux Falls, most of the major cities around, many of the National Wildlife Refuges, and most of the cities in the Hills. However, there are very few of these held in Northeastern South Dakota. I’ve never seen data or an invitation of one being held in Watertown, so I don’t know the history there. There isn’t one in Milbank.
I have memories of the CBC in Grantsburg WI as a kid. I never participated, but my grandmother’s house was just at the 7.5 mile radius line from town, and she had for two decades one of the only colonies of evening grosbeaks in Northwestern Wisconsin. Unfortunately, they all disappeared in the middle 1980s, never to return, and neither did the counters.
On December 16th, I drove over to Aberdeen to participate in their count. Gary Olson of Aberdeen has run this bird count for the last six years. Talking to the locals, although records have not been kept, this is probably the 34th or 35th year this has been held in Aberdeen starting in the late 70s. There were periods in which it wasn’t held when there was no one in charge of it. Doing a bird count in late December in Brown County is a thankless, mundane task. The weather has a tendency to be nasty, and there aren’t many birds around. Last year’s bird count was postponed due to a blizzard, and in 2015, the morning started at minus 15 and we even came across someone stuck in a snowdrift on a country road. Needless to say, most self-respecting birds have long before hightailed it south.
The count in Aberdeen begins at a McDonald’s at 7:45 in the morning where this year, 13 intrepid souls get the assignments, another was already at watch at a key feeder. Then we load up and head out. This year my team consisted of Betty Clay, a local woman from Aberdeen who recorded from the back seat, and Paul Mammenga a local wildfowl biologist for the SDGF. He drove and I spotted.
The way the bird count works is that one draws a 7 mile radius circle from a stable center of the search area which stays constant. In this circle, the goal is to cover all of the territory in the area. In Aberdeen, the center is the intersection of old 12 and 281. We were assigned the northwestern quadrant, excluding Richmond State Park, which was assigned specifically to someone else. Others got assigned other quadrants, parts of the city, parks and cemeteries, and feeders—all potentially good bird habitats. In the winter, there is a paucity of birds out in harvested fields, so one can drive a lot of miles without seeing much of anything. It took us two hours after lunch to see a new bird.
The plan was typical birding. We lurked in people’s yards, staked out feeders (assuming they had seed), as about 90% of hanging bird feeders are never filled, and drove over 85 miles. We talked out way into the county dump, and watched powerlines for any signs of avian life. We tried not to trespass but found a spot that seemed like a good place to get permission to hike around in the 2018 count. A guy on a four-wheeler stopped to ask us what we were doing, and it is always with an apology that we say…counting birds. It isn’t normal for people to just go out and count birds. No one came out to offer us eggnog and yell, “the counters are here!” It was probably lucky we didn’t get shot at.
In 2015 while doing another quadrant, we found 426 pheasants, but this year we just got 9, with only 70 for the whole count. The numbers of pheasants around Aberdeen is way down this year. Everyone hoped for some owls or a rare bird, but no snowy owls were seen, and our best birds were a merlin ...
and a lone female red-winged black bird sitting on a fence maybe three miles from the nearest bird or any cover, but a red-winged blackbird is not a very good bird.
It was odd that we only saw one. Mostly we saw invasive species—starlings, house sparrows, and a plethora of pigeons.
It was a long and tiring day driving farm roads. The most excitement we had was late in the morning, I was getting tired of the same old same old and in a place where I could walk through a frozen marsh, I got out to walk. About half way through the grass I jumped a white-tailed jackrabbit. It ran across the road in front of the others in a truck. Suddenly they were hitting their horn. I’m thinking, yes, I know I flushed a rabbit but then they shouted that there were birds up.
This silly rabbit had ran across the road and flushed a flock of what turned out to be common redpolls and then thinking dinner might be coming its way, a rough-legged hawk flew up. It was the most excitement we had. Luckily no rabbits were harmed in this story. In Brookings, their best find turned out to be four camels in a field near Sinai, SD. Camels? Really? In a town named…Sinai? Coincidence? I might have to look into that more for a later project.
They did find some rare birds in and around Brookings. White-winged crossbills are a seldom-seen winter bird in the eastern half of South Dakota at feeders and in spruce trees. I’d never seen one before in the state, so on Monday, following the lead, I found myself in the First Lutheran Cemetery south of the Brookings airport photographing these birds.
As I said, our bird count was not too exciting. This year the official count for the Aberdeen CBC was 3545 birds representing 45 species. The record for the last few years was in 2015 with one more species and a 120 more total birds. In other CBCs already held the number of birds and species was higher. I think they saw 58 in Sioux Falls.
They are many odd and strange Christmas traditions and maybe you think a Christmas Bird Count is right up there with the Yule log and St. Lucia, but at least it is something to go and do. In my history it beats finding the pickle in the Christmas tree or gagging on Lutefisk. Luckily, the warm Glögg (a wine, vodka, cinnamon drink) washed down a lot of potentially painful memories.