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Rytters' participation in local bird count goes back to 1950s

The usual job titles and responsibilities were set aside at the Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge on December 14th for the 111th annual National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count.

1/04/12 (Wed)

Christmas Bird Count . . . The lack of snow cover allowed veteran
birder Russell Rytter, above, to walk into Munch's Coulee on the
Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge and look for birds to record
for the annual Naitonal Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count in the
Kenmare area.  Rytter spotted two types of redpolls in the coulee,
but relatively few birds were recorded compared to other count years,
with 28 species and 1,100 individual birds seen.


By Caroline Downs

The usual job titles and responsibilities were set aside at the Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge on December 14th for the 111th annual National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count.

For that event, nine refuge staff members and volunteers all assumed the role of birdwatcher, driving 279 miles and walking about 3/4 of a mile in a total of six hours to record their observations.

Biological science technician Andy Jewett coordinated the event, handing out clipboards, lists of species generally found over the years to use as a reference, and color-coded maps of the routes covering a 15-mile circle around the central point of Kenmare.

“Those routes have been set for eons,” said volunteer Darrel Rytter, “although they vary according to the snow pack.”

Darrel should know. He and his brother Russell have been assisting with the Christmas Bird Count since the mid-1950s, when the two young boys joined the popular Kenmare Bird Club started by Dr. and Mrs. Robert Gammell.

“I just enjoy it,” said Russell. “My mother said I was a birdwatcher when I was in the crib.”

Russell and Darrel first assisted the Gammells with bird-banding operations in Tasker’s Coulee, driving hundreds of birds into nets to capture, identify and mark. In the 1960s, the brothers guided for international and national birding tours based in Kenmare, including the first American Birding Association field trip, where they marveled over other birders’ interests in birds common to this area such as the horned lark.

Darrel missed the Christmas bird count during years he lived away from Kenmare, but otherwise both men have volunteered faithfully.

They take each count seriously and drive portions of the routes in the days before the scheduled count to see what bird species are in the area.

For the 2011 count, Russell mused over the lack of snow buntings, horned larks and Lapland longspurs, all species that have been numbered in the hundreds and even thousands during previous counts. “It must be because of the lack of crops this year,” he said, referring to the saturated spring and early summer conditions that prevented most area farmers from planting. “The [prairie] potholes are full, but there are just no crops. That’s the only thing I can figure.”

The day of the count was overcast, with four groups out by 8:30 am to begin the search. The temperature was mild, ranging from 22 to 27 degrees F with a breeze blowing up to 14 mph. Snow cover was light, up to six inches in places with the vegetation and soil exposed in many areas.

The relatively pleasant weather made for poor viewing, however. Some groups noted only eight species of birds for the entire morning, while other groups went up to half an hour without seeing any birds at all.

Mallards and northern pintails were seen during the count, an unusual sight in December, including a flock of about 40 mallards on open water immediately northwest of Kenmare. Refuge manager Chad Zorn explained that all water structures on the refuge were open. “We’re pushing water from Unit 2 through the refuge,” he said. “We’re still a foot above our operating level.”

The ducks enjoyed the open water, which Zorn expected to keep flowing until the temperatures dropped. He said he was taking a calculated risk of low lake levels by continuing to release water now, but there would be time in the spring to close the water control structures and hold runoff if necessary. “It’s flowing straight through the refuge,” he said.

While there were plenty of ducks, the most frequently seen birds of the day were common redpolls, with about 350 recorded. Rock doves were also numerous at 243, and 198 house sparrows were seen.

Only two horned larks were recorded, east of town, and spotters in the northwest portion of the count area noted 50 snow buntings. No longspurs were seen that day.

The count turned up 28 total species and 1,100 individual birds, about a quarter of the count’s average of 4,686 birds.

“This species total is back down to normal,” said Darrel Rytter. “In the last few years, the species count has been on the upper end.”

When the birdwatchers reconvened at refuge headquarters for a noon meal, Darrel and Russell looked over the lists. “We haven’t got downy or hairy woodpeckers, we haven’t got a blue jay and we haven’t had any owls,” Russell said. He also noted the lack of wild turkeys and Eurasian collared doves for the morning.

The Rytters and some of the refuge staff returned to the field for the afternoon, and did find three of the collared doves, which are relative newcomers in this area. A single snowy owl was spotted, along with one screech owl. Two hairy woodpeckers showed themselves, as did one blue jay.

The day’s list also included 27 ring-necked pheasants and 20 sharp-tailed grouse, 22 magpies, 6 crows and 7 ravens. Russell maintained the ravens are becoming more common in the area, including in the city of Kenmare.

House finches, goldfinches, chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches were seen, as well as three hoary redpolls and a single American robin perched in a spruce tree near the refuge headquarters, stubbornly refusing to seek a warmer climate.

The Kenmare count is one of a few the Rytters participate in each year. Darrel compiles data for the new Lostwood Birding and Nature Association count, based in the Powers Lake area, and Russell goes along to spot birds. Both men typically help with the Christmas Bird Count on the Upper Souris National Wildlife Refuge as well, as long as the date doesn’t interfere with the Kenmare count.

Russell has also volunteered for counts in Garrison, Grand Forks and the Icelandic State Park near Cavalier. “There was a time when I thought I was going to go to every bird count in the state at least once,” he said, then laughed. “That was back when gas was 19 cents a gallon!”

He does keep track of birds around Kenmare, driving a route from the south end of the Des Lacs Lakes across on Ward County 4 and up to Niobe, then east to the refuge and back to Kenmare on the Boat Dock Road. “From May through August, I make that trip about every three days,” he said. “It’s about 48 miles and takes me about two hours, unless I see something interesting.” During the winter months, he gets out as weather allows.

Neither Russell nor Darrel worries too much about keeping extensive lists of their sightings. “It’s a hobby, and it’s something that’s free,” said Darrel.

“You have to enjoy it,” added Russell. “I’ve started to add to it, to look at and identify more plants now. That’s something I want to learn.”

Although they don’t keep their own records, the two men admit to being a bit competitive about their birding. Russell was exasperated with his own empty yard and feeders on the morning of the count. “We didn’t see a bird there, not a one,” he said, “and there must have been 500 sparrows there yesterday!”

“When Russell and I go ice fishing or something, we see who can name the bird off the road first,” said Darrel. “You try to name every bird you see. That’s the fun of it.”

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 Lacs count in Kenmare has been conducted nearly every year since 1939.