Volunteers keep eyes to the sky for Christmas Bird Count

A mountain bluebird seen on last year’s St. Paul area count. Western birds such as this one may be more prevalent this winter due to the summer drought conditions in North America. 

The holiday season brings many kinds of gatherings: family dinners, office parties and, for birdwatchers, the time-honored Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC).

It’s a lively day of exploring local winter landscapes and watching carefully for the winged wildlife that can be found even in the depths of Minnesota winter.

The annual bird count will take place across the globe between Dec. 14, 2021, and Jan. 5, 2022. Each count consists of a local group of volunteers who observe areas within their 15-mile count radius over the course of a single day. In the northeast metro area, counters can participate in the St. Paul Christmas Bird Count on Dec. 18, or the Northeast Suburban count on Dec. 26. The Northeast Suburban count circle is centered on Withrow and includes the communities of Stillwater, Marine on St. Croix, Mahtomedi, White Bear Lake and Hugo.

The data collected by volunteers contributes to more than a century of information that helps scientists observe trends that can tell us more about bird behavior and habitat conditions.

“It’s so important for estimating bird populations and trends,” said St. Paul Coordinator Gregg Severson. “It’s been 120 years, just these really long data sets and one of the critical pieces of information we have about bird trends.”

 “The ups and downs are pretty easy to understand,” said Northeast Suburban Area Coordinator Jim Howitz. “Some of them are quite general. House finches have exploded in the last 50 years, ruffed grouse are down statewide and probably metrowide. Woodpeckers are doing very well, presumably because the trees are getting bigger and becoming diseased and dying as the suburbs mature. Those are results are easily confirmed by the Christmas counts.”

Howitz is looking forward to seeing potential effects of the 17-year cicada emergence in certain parts of the U.S., as birds such as grackles, robins and blue jays likely benefited from this abundant food source. In general, overall trends are showing effects of global climate change. Birds like robins, which usually prefer milder weather, are consistently wintering farther north, while northern birds such as evening grosbeaks aren’t moving as far south as in past decades.  

“What I expect is we’ll see a lot more of the southern birds,” Howitz said. “Tufted titmice, Carolina wrens, bluebirds. Last year we got yellow-bellied sapsuckers, which feed on sap that doesn’t run in the winter. But those show up more with a warming climate.”

Last year, several North Suburban counters were able to observe a great gray owl, which was far outside its normal northern range. Counters in the St. Paul area were able to see a mountain bluebird, which typically is found only in the west and southwest regions of North America. 

“After the big drought out West, there might be western species that might be fleeing drought areas and coming this way,” Severson said. “One of the fun things about the CBC is it’s such an intense focus over a fairly broad area; instead of everyone going to the biggest hotspot, you often turn up things that otherwise might not get seen.”  

COVID-19 was a large consideration in this year’s planning. The National Audubon Society advises participants to stay socially distanced outside, and to avoid carpooling with anyone outside of their existing family group or social pod. In some places, local coordinators have chosen to exclude or limit new participants, but new counters are welcome in the Northeast Suburban area as long as COVID guidelines are followed. 

Severson added that the St. Paul area count is always looking for experienced birders to become count leaders, and invites volunteers. 

Those who would rather stay indoors can also participate in the count by conducting a feeder watch. If you have bird feeders in your yard, you can contact the area coordinator and receive instructions on how to accurately count the birds that visit the feeder over the course of the day. The final count will be included with the number of birds and species observed by patrolling counters. 

The Northeast Metro count will take place Sunday, Dec. 26. Anyone interested in signing up for the count can visit www.audubon.org/conservation/join-christmas-bird-count to find out which count area they are closest to, and which area coordinator they should contact.  

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