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Deep snow cover may account for low bird count numbers

Volunteers and staff from the Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge had mild and windy conditions when they conducted the 110th National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count on December 14th.

12/29/10 (Wed)


Volunteers and staff from the Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge had mild and windy conditions when they conducted the 110th National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count on December 14th.


The group covered over 174 miles by vehicle and foot, and two volunteers reported observations from their birdfeeders, to find a total of 26 bird species.


While the number of species isn’t far off the average, the low total number of birds surprised the volunteers, with only 1,232 birds seen, compared to 2,090 birds for the count last year and the count’s average of 4,686 birds.


“We’ve been talking about it and figure the deeper snow and some of the weather has pushed them out of the area,” said Andy Jewett, biological science technician at the Des Lacs NWR.


No Lapland longspurs were noted, which often number in the hundreds or thousands during the Des Lacs Christmas bird count.


Only 85 horned larks were seen, compared to 796 last year, and 50 snow buntings were recorded, compared to 303 in 2009. Both of those species have been seen in flocks of several hundred and even thousands in past winters.


Jewett speculated those species had moved to avoid the deep snow cover. “They seem to like bare hilltops or high areas, but also seem to need grass to take cover in,” he said.


Numbers for those birds were down, but numbers of sharp-tailed grouse and ring-necked pheasants stood at the highest levels ever recorded, with 306 grouse and 143 pheasants counted.


The previous record for pheasants was 65 birds seen in 2009. The grouse numbers increased slightly from last year’s record of 284 birds and the 2008 total of 188.


“We don’t really know why these birds are doing so well,” said Jewett. “Grouse all over seem to be on a steady incline in numbers in the past years. Pheasants are hard to tell, since many clubs and private land owners release them and it’s hard to get a trend on them.”


The volunteers noted 192 rock pigeons, 113 house sparrows and 90 Bohemian waxwings, all species that commonly winter in the area.


While no redpolls were observed in 2009, 16 of the birds were counted this year. The common redpoll is another species usually seen in high numbers through this area.


Other upland bird species seen in the 2010 count included 65 wild turkeys and 25 grey partridge. One prairie falcon was observed, a species that has only been seen in seven counts through the years, and four great horned owls were spotted, although no snowy owls were seen.


Nine Eurasian collared doves, reported on only two previous bird counts, were seen this year, along with two common ravens, which have been noted on only five counts through the years. Feeder favorites such as goldfinches, black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches and dark-eyed juncos were seen, and both downy and hairy woodpeckers were reported.


The eight participants spent about 20 hours in the field and started with cool morning temperatures of eight degrees, then saw the thermometer climb to 17 degrees for the day’s high reading. Snow cover ranged from four to 24 inches, and winds varied from 10 to 20 mph.


The official count period designated for the nationwide Christmas Bird Count event is the period between December 14th and January 5th. The count is conducted at more than 2,000 locations across North America each year. It began in New York during the late 1800s and has grown into a fun Christmas tradition. The count provides a means of tracking trends in population size and distribution of several bird species. The Des Las count in Kenmare has been conducted nearly every year since 1939.