Social distancing is no obstacle for Christmas Bird Count

Owl species such as this barred owl are found in Minnesota year-round, and are often located by pre-dawn owl counters during the Christmas Bird Count.

Bird nerds, rejoice: Not even COVID-19 can break a winter tradition 121 years in the making. The annual Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count will go on in the Northeast Suburban area on Dec. 26, with some alterations to reduce the risk of virus transmission. 

“It’s really the perfect isolation activity because it’s just people and birds,” said Jim Howitz, Christmas Bird Count coordinator for the Northeast Suburban region. The Northeast Suburban region is centered on Withrow and includes areas of Hugo, Marine on St. Croix, Stillwater and White Bear Lake. 

A few bird counts won’t be happening this winter on account of pandemic precautions, but many counts plan to go forward. In past years, the bird count has included some in-person volunteer meetings to strategize routes or join up for lunch or potluck afterward. This year, in-person gatherings are canceled, and carpooling is only allowed among existing social pod groups, such as family members who share a household. 

Volunteers who come from separate households may participate in a caravan of vehicles as long as they maintain social distancing outside and wear masks. This separation is a challenge to newer counters, who are supposed to go into the field under the guidance of more experienced birders. For anyone wanting to participate for the first time, Howitz recommends staying home to conduct a feeder watch instead. This is also one of the cozier options, as the bird count has been beset by cold drops in the weather and freezing rain in the past few years. 

Feeder counts are great for beginners because it’s often easier to identify feeder birds up close. Howitz encourages anyone who isn’t sure about a bird to take a picture and ask someone with more experience. 

“We used to want very detailed descriptions, but a picture is worth a thousand words,” he said. 

Those interested in counting birds at their feeder this year can go to audubon.org to find their local count area. After totaling their numbers, they can send them to their local count compiler to be added to the final tally.

“The only rule is, you pick the highest number, so say you see five chickadees at once, you send in five as your total. It might be many times that, but you report the maximum number you see any one given time. I would encourage people to do that. A lot of the best birds are at somebody’s feeders, and they hardly ever get reported.”  

Howitz does not know if the COVID-19 precautions will significantly alter the number of participants. Even if there are fewer counters, he expects that the data will not be affected. The CBC looks for trends among bird populations, which will be calculable based on the number of observer parties and their hours in the field. 

Among the trends recent bird counts have noticed: pigeons and house sparrows are declining, while turkeys and red-bellied woodpeckers are showing up in increasing numbers. These trends are consistent with the impacts of human development and global climate change. 

Howitz is particularly interested in trends among red-headed woodpeckers, a declining species with a small population stronghold at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve in East Bethel. Citizen science such as the Christmas Bird Count and Breeding Bird Survey, combined with professional research, can give insights into where these populations go for the winter and how they survive. The Christmas Bird Count allows average citizens to be a part of long-term data that can help scientists understand the lives of birds and their wider ecosystems. 

This winter may be a particularly interesting one for bird counters, as many have noticed large numbers of birds from the far north in the Twin Cities area this fall. These include pine siskins, redpolls and evening grosbeaks. 

“I’ve noticed that a lot of good birds are turning up, which means there are people there to find them,” Howitz said. “It’s a really good isolation activity. You can go out with one or two people or by yourself, and a lot of people really need to just get out. Birding is a very rewarding yet solitary activity.”

It’s also a good way to look closer and get to know the ecology of your local neighborhood. 

The trends are a lot more accurate as the counters get better at finding birds,” Howitz said. “Once you’ve found a good bird in a spot, you always go back. It works. I got bluebirds at Cedar Creek maybe 20 years ago, and then a few years ago, there they were again. The habitat was good. It makes sense. If you’ve got bushes or something with a lot of berries, or food for cattle or chickens, it makes sense you’ll find birds.”  

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