ALWAYS IN SEASON: A close call for the snowy owl on local bird count
It took a while to find a snowy owl on the Grand Forks Christmas Bird Count this year. A snowy owl hung out frustratingly near the west border of the count circle, but not within it. Count Compiler Dave Lambeth chose to follow count rules. Not in...
It took a while to find a snowy owl on the Grand Forks Christmas Bird Count this year.
A snowy owl hung out frustratingly near the west border of the count circle, but not within it.
Count Compiler Dave Lambeth chose to follow count rules. Not in the circle, not countable, even if the counter was inside the circle.
But the rules do have a loophole.
A bird doesn't have to be seen on the day of the count. The count period actually encompasses a week, or three days either side of count day.
Birds seen during that period are tagged "CW," which stands for count week.
Finally, on Day 7, a snowy owl was spotted inside the circle, and a 40-year record of snowy owls on the Grand Forks count was preserved.
This episode proves the birding adage that "time plus effort equals birds."
The difficulty points to another phenomenon, the relative scarcity of snowy owls this season.
For the record, I did not participate in the Grand Forks count. Nor have I seen a snowy owl this year. I think it is my first miss on this species since my father first showed it to me more than half a century ago.
Normally, snowy owls are fairly easy to come by in this part of the world. In fact rural Grand Forks County may be the most dependable area in the Lower 48 states for this owl, with the possible exception of Boston's Logan Airport.
Boston's airport and rural Grand Forks County have a couple of things in common. Both are close to the Canadian border and both are wide open.
Snowy owls are Arctic birds, breeding north of the tree line. They like open spaces.
Some of the owls move south in winter. Often these are younger birds, which show more black in the plumage than their elders.
But no two winters are the same as far as owls are concerned. Some winters, they are numerous. Most years, they are present, and it's possible to find half a dozen or more in a drive through the grasslands northwest of Grand Forks.
In 2001, for example, eight were found in the count circle. In 1998, seven were found.
The boundaries of the circle present a bit of a disadvantage for counters in search of snowy owls. The center of the circle is a mile east of the airport entrance. That leaves most of the open country outside the boundaries of the circle's 15-mile diameter.
There's an advantage in that for bird counters, of course. The Grand Forks urban forest harbors many more species than the windswept grasslands.
But it doesn't harbor snowy owls.
In six earlier counts, birders had to settle for snowy owls in count week.
But for 40 years consecutively, the birds have been found during the count period. And they were found on three earlier counts, when the number of counters was fewer and the effort correspondingly less.
Still, that makes the snowy owl one of only a few species seen on more than 40 of the 50 counts so far conducted locally.
Only five species have been seen on every count.
One of these is the house sparrow, of course. This species is present virtually wherever people are present, and so it is easy to find. Or rather, it is hard to miss.
It's also always among the most numerous birds locally, even though there were none at all in the Red River Valley -- or in North America -- a century ago. The house sparrow is an immigrant.
The four native species seen every year are hairy woodpecker, white-breasted nuthatch, black-capped chickadee and snow bunting.
The scarcity of snowy owls is puzzling. Was it a poor year for raising young? Is the food supply farther north sufficient for the birds? Or, is it just easier to get because snow cover is less?
This is doubly mysterious because another northern raptor was present in near-record numbers. This is the rough-legged hawk. Thirty rough-legged hawks were found, one less than in the record year, 2006.
In all, counters found 45 species on count day, and four were added during count week.
The count was held Dec. 19; count week ended Wednesday.
Mike Jacobs is editor and publisher of the Herald.