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Christmas bird count: One day to count them all, birders recall

Doug Johnson of Bemidji points out a section of the Bemidji Christmas Bird Count circle on a map. From left, Noel Benson of Bemidji, Krista Spencer of Bemidji, Mark Ledeboer, and Yvonne Ledeboer of Wilmar glance over the map. A group of volunteers participating in the CBC met at the Cabin Coffeehouse for a mid-day break and to discuss morning bird sightings. Pioneer Photo/Anne Williams

It was a rare sighting, indeed. A rose-breasted grosbeak, which should've been overwintering in Central America by now, was spotted at Lake Bemidji State Park on Saturday.

A volunteer participating in the 31st annual Bemidji Christmas Bird Count spotted the grosbeak while counting birds on Saturday. The CBC is part of the National Audubon Society's 110th annual Christmas Bird Count.

The annual survey is a one-day event that helps monitor bird populations all across the country. Volunteer participants work in teams to cover a designated area. Each team is led by at least one experienced birder.

State highway 197 and Beltrami County Road 11/404 mark the center junction of the Count circle. Participants travel as far north as Bemidji State Park and as far east as Midge Lake in search of birds.

CBC volunteer Krista Spencer of Bemidji said she has been doing CBC since was 10 years old.

"My father got me into it," Spencer said. "He'd been doing it since he was little. It's fun to see what your bird feeder will attract and how birds act once they arrive."

At the midday break, CBC coordinator Kelly Larson read through a list of bird species to the group of participants, many of whom were multiple-year veterans of the Count.

Last year, CBC volunteers recorded 36 species of birds, most of which were black-capped chickadees, pine siskins, common redpolls, blue jays and Bohmian waxwings.

As of noon on Saturday, the group had seen black-capped chickadees, crows, woodpeckers, mallards and blue jays. No one had seen any common redpolls or Bohemian waxwings.

"Let's be on the lookout for these species, along with mourning doves and ruffed grouse," Larson told the group just before breaking for the afternoon.

Other birds spotted on Saturday morning included cedar waxwings, a purple finch, a great-horned owl and bald eagles. CBC participant John Eggers of Bemidji spotted three robins near the airport on Saturday morning.

"This was the first time I'd ever seen robins in December," Eggers said. "I saw them sitting in a crab apple tree."

Last year's high finch count proved to birders it was a good year for winter finches all over the state. CBC participants found white-winged crossbills and pine grosbeaks at several locations in 2008. The high number of over-wintering American Robins was also found to be surprise to many.

According Larson, CBCs in colder climate areas depend heavily on household bird feeders to find birds.

"This is the key to success, especially in urban areas where feeders are common," Larson said.

Retired Minnesota Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist John Mathisen has summarized the CBC data for the past 31 years. He and his wife, Ann, have also participated in the CBC for almost as many years.

Matthisen's data indicates that past Bemidji CBCs show the evening grosbeak has almost disappeared in this area. One graph shows a steady decline in the bird's numbers from a peak in 1981. The red crossbill also shows a steady decline since 1979 and has not been recoded for the last eight years.

"We'd like to get more young people involved in this," Larson said.

In helping the success of the bird count, Larson recommended people put seed in their bird feeders beginning in September.

"Even if people go on long vacations, birds are very accustomed to leaving one food source for another," Larson said. "They will come back if there's food."

Data from this year's and past Bemidji CBCs can be found at