ALWAYS IN SEASON: Christmas bird counts show some surprises

Counters in Crookston found a varied thrush. In Grand Forks, counters found short-eared owls. Gray partridges and ruffed grouse were seen at Icelandic State Park and robins showed up at Devils Lake.

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs portrait for Always in Season column

Counters in Crookston found a varied thrush. In Grand Forks, counters found short-eared owls. Gray partridges and ruffed grouse were seen at Icelandic State Park and robins showed up at Devils Lake.

Still, this season's round of Christmas bird counts may have been more interesting for what wasn't seen.

There were very few redpolls, either common or hoary. Very few pine siskins. Few grosbeaks of any species. Few purple finches. In fact, very few northern finches of any kind.

Snowy owls were scarce.

So were rough-legged hawks. In fact, there were few raptors at all.


Explanation, please?

I put the question to Dave Lambeth, who took part in three local counts. He's the dean of local birds and the compiler of the Grand Forks count.

The birds must be north of here, was his response. Birds respond to conditions on the ground, and food supplies must be plentiful there.

All of the northern birds are "irruptive," to use the ornithological term. That means they show up in pretty good numbers some years and not at all in other years.

Last year was an exceptional year for northern finches, including redpolls and pine siskins. Especially siskins. Icelandic's count of siskins last year was among the highest in North America.

This year will no doubt be remembered as a poor year for finches, unless something changes.

On the other hand, this has been a good year for some unexpected species.

Crookston's varied thrush is among these.


The varied thrush is a western relative of the robin. In fact, these thrushes are very similar to robins, though they are perhaps a bit paler overall. They show quite a lot of orange or rust in the wings, unlike robins. And unlike robins, they have a prominent black band across the breast and a noticeable orange stripe above the eye.

Like robins, varied thrushes are fruit eaters.

An abundance of fruit hanging on trees may explain why varied thrushes have become more likely to show up here, and why robins have become more reliable winter residents.

There's food for them.

This is a relatively new development, of course. Few native plants, except wild roses and high bush cranberry, hold their fruit over winter.

But many ornamental species do.

This helps explain the relative abundance of another fruit-eating bird, the cedar waxwing. A big bunch of waxwings hung around my place well into December, and this species was found on several counts in our area. As late as Friday, I received a report of waxwings, in this case from Climax, Minn.

Cedar waxwings nest in this area, but most years, they move farther south. Some years, they are replaced by a northern relative, the Bohemian waxwings. But Bohemian waxwings have been scarce this winter.


Both species are fruit eaters, eagerly taking mountain ash berries and crabapples. The waxwings at my place were attracted to eastern red cedar trees, which also produce a kind of berry.

So, changes in the local food supply -- this year favoring fruit over wild seeds -- may explain the difference in some bird species seen here this winter.

But what about the raptors?

Rough-legged hawks seemed fairly numerous early in the season -- before the first December snowfall. These birds hunt by sight, and snow cover sends them looking for open ground.

Owls use sound as well as sight, and so they are better equipped as winter hunters, and this may explain why short-eared owls showed up in larger than usual numbers this year.

But it doesn't explain why snowy owls have been so few.

In fact, this is the first winter I can remember when I have not seen a single snowy owl.

Overall, counters in Grand Forks found 48 species, those in Devils Lake 36 and at Icelandic State Park 32.

Among notable species were northern mallards at Grand Forks and Icelandic, and a bufflehead at Grand Forks.

All of the counts had high numbers of sharp-tailed grouse, though the low number of greater prairie chickens, a specialty of the Grand Forks count area, raises concern about their viability here. These two species interbreed, and the more numerous may overwhelm the scarcer.

Jacobs is publisher and editor of the Herald.

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