What started as an alternative to a long-ago holiday hunting contest has become one of the most anticipated birding events of the year, the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count.

As the Audubon Society explains on its website, the event that eventually grew into the Christmas Bird Count started on Christmas Day 1900, when an ornithologist by the name of Frank M. Chapman proposed a “Christmas Bird Census” to replace the “Side Hunt,” a hunting competition in which hunters chose sides and went afield to see who could kill the most game.

Today, tens of thousands of birdwatchers across North America take to the fields between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5 -- the official count period each year -- tallying the number of birds they see within specified circles 15 miles in diameter.

The Grand Forks Christmas Bird Count, just one year shy of its 60th anniversary, is set for Sunday, Dec. 15. Participants should meet at 7 a.m. at Northside Cafe, 3450 Gateway Drive. A noon gathering is set for Subway-Little Caesars, 1801 Gateway Drive, and a post-count “Tally Rally” is set for 5 p.m. at the home of Rolf Paulson, 140 Rolling Hills Circle.

The Grand Forks count is one of several being held across the region in the next three weeks. Whether in Grand Forks or elsewhere, the Christmas Bird Count is a holiday tradition he doesn’t miss, said Mike Jacobs, a birding enthusiast and former Herald editor and publisher who writes the Herald’s weekly “Always in Season” bird column that runs every Sunday.

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“I haven’t done the same count every year, but there hasn’t been a year I haven’t done the count” since the late 1970s, Jacobs said. “Part of it’s just checking up with people you don’t see all the time. Another part is understanding that no matter how cold and snowy it is, there’s still life outside.

“It’s easy to forget that in weather like this -- you just get under a blanket and forget about things -- but life goes on in the wild, as well. So it’s good to tap into that, I think.”

GF count circle

The center of the Grand Forks count circle is at the junction of U.S. Highway 2 and 20th Street Northeast, the road that passes Kellys Slough National Wildlife Refuge and takes in the cities of East Grand Forks and Grand Forks and much of the prairie country west of Grand Forks, Jacobs said.

No two years are the same, but so far, the onset of wintry weather hasn’t produced much in the way of notable bird sightings, Jacobs said. There’s been a flurry of northern shrike sightings along the Red River Greenway, so that’s a possibility during Sunday’s Grand Forks count, he said.

According to a summary on the Grand Cities Bird Club website, last year's count day produced 3,287 birds of 48 species, along with another five species on count week -- the three-day period on either side of count day that's also allowed.

“Snowy owls have been notably scarce,” Jacobs said. “I’ve only heard one report so far, and that was from well into Minnesota. There are some northern hawks down -- I’ve seen rough-legged (hawks) -- the resident raven is around, and the snow buntings are here. But otherwise, I would say it’s been a very slow winter so far.”

Given Grand Forks’ proximity to both prairie and forest habitat -- Beltrami Island State Forest in northwest Minnesota is only a couple of hours away -- Christmas Bird Count participants have a variety of birding opportunities.

“You could make a Christmas vacation out of it,” Jacobs said.

Experience isn’t a prerequisite, either.

“It’s actually a very good way for beginners or people who are trying to expand their birding knowledge to team up with people who know the area and know the birds,” Jacobs said. “Those are the two critical things to finding species at any time of year, but particularly in the wintertime.”

Given a choice, Jacobs said he’d prefer a “middling warm” count day, especially if it follows a snowfall or wind event.

“That would tend to bring birds down from the north, and it would tend to bring birds out that had been sitting out the rough weather,” Jacobs said. “You don’t want wind -- wind interferes with everything.”

For more information on the Grand Forks Christmas Bird Count, contact David Lambeth, count compiler, at davidlambeth58201@yahoo.com. For more information on Christmas Bird Counts, including their history and counts on tap across North America, check out the Audubon website at audubon.org and click the Christmas Bird Count link at the top of the page.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1148 or send email to bdokken@gfherald.com.

Upcoming Christmas Bird Counts

Here’s a listing of Christmas Bird Counts across the region.

  • Dec. 14: Crookston Christmas Bird Count. Meet by 7 a.m. at RBJ’s Restaurant, 1601 University Ave., for breakfast and planning; count will begin at 8 a.m. Info: Tom Feiro, (218) 521-0223 or tfeiro@crk.umn.edu.

  • Dec. 14: Bemidji Christmas Bird Count. Meet at 7 a.m. at the Minnesota Nice Cafe, 315 Irvine Ave., for breakfast and count assignments; be there by 7:45 a.m. if not having breakfast. Tally Rally set for sometime after 4:30 p.m. at Bridgid’s Cross Irish Pub, 317 Beltrami Ave. Info: Douglas Johnson, dougjohn23@gmail.com.

  • Dec. 14: Fargo Christmas Bird Count. Contact Keith Corliss at kcor708@gmail.com for details if interested.

  • Dec. 15: Grand Forks -East Grand Forks Christmas Bird Count. Participants should meet at 7 a.m. at Northside Cafe, 3450 Gateway Drive, Grand Forks. Info: Dave Lambeth, davidlambeth58201@yahoo.com or (701) 772-4560.

  • Dec. 16: 24th annual Itasca State Park Winter Bird Count, 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Itasca State Park, Minn. Meet at the Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center between 7:30 and 8 a.m. for count assignment; stay a few hours or spend the whole day. Info: (218) 699-7251.

  • Dec. 18: Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge-sponsored count near Newfolden, Minn. Interested counters should contact Lynda Knutsen for a specific count circle assignment at (218) 449-4115 ext. 202 or lynda_knutsen@fws.gov.

  • Dec. 19: Glacial Ridge and Rydell national wildlife refuges Christmas Bird Count. Meet at 8 a.m. at the Rydell NWR Visitor Center, 17788 349th St. SE, Erskine, Minn., to split into teams. Noon potluck planned back at the Visitor Center. Info: Ben Walker, (218) 230-5563.

  • Dec. 28: Devils Lake Christmas Bird Count. Meet between 7:30 and 8 a.m. at the Cedar Inn on U.S. Highway 2 to organize and divide into territory. Info: Charlie Christianson, christc@gra.midco.net.

  • Jan. 3: Beltrami Island State Forest. Info: Martin Kehoe, mvkehoe@aol.com.

  • Jan. 4: Roseau Christmas Bird Count. Meet at 7 a.m. at the Roseau Diner in Roseau, Minn. Info: Kris Guggisberg, (218) 689-7699 or Beth Siverhus, (218) 242-1037.

  • Jan. 5: Baudette, Minn., Christmas Bird Count. Info: Martin Kehoe, mvkehoe@aol.com.