ALWAYS IN SEASON: Why count birds on a cold day?
You might wonder what would lead a person into the cold to count birds. I wonder, and I do it. Yet, at this time every year, scores of people locally and thousands nationwide venture outdoors as part of the annual Christmas bird counts. The count...
You might wonder what would lead a person into the cold to count birds.
I wonder, and I do it.
Yet, at this time every year, scores of people locally and thousands nationwide venture outdoors as part of the annual Christmas bird counts.
The counts are a revered tradition in the birding world. Several thousand are conducted, about 20 within a few hours drive of Grand Forks.
The count in Grand Forks itself takes place today. It will be the 50th consecutive year of the count here.
So, what's the appeal?
To begin with, there's the chance to be outdoors. In my experience, a day spent outdoors is never wasted, because nature always delivers something worthwhile.
That happened Thursday during the annual count at Icelandic State Park near Cavalier, N.D., the 20th annual count there.
Once again, my partner was Dennis Clark, assistant to the park's manager, and once again, we were patrolling an area west of the park and south of N.D. Highway 5. It's an area that we know well. We know where to find the sharp-tailed grouse, for example, and we know the good spots for pileated woodpeckers, bald eagles and several other species.
But it was one of the most common winter birds that especially beguiled us this year.
We flushed a single snow bunting as we drove along a rural road.
It's not unusual to find snow buntings in such a setting, but it is unusual to see only one at a time. Snow buntings are social birds, often occurring in large flocks. The other buntings seen on the count were in groups of 20 or more, and one flock had more than 100 birds.
Our solitary bunting appeared healthy. It behaved just as snow buntings usually do, flying along the road just in front of our vehicle.
But this bird changed tactics. Instead of fleeing in front of us, it settled into a field. There it sat, allowing us an extraordinary opportunity to watch it closely.
Snow buntings are beautiful birds, but none has ever looked so exquisitely beautiful to me.
Part of this may be attributed to the light. The bunting was bathed in the brilliant light of a December afternoon. Its plumage was sharply defined -- and incredibly richly colored.
We tend to think of snow buntings as white, perhaps partly because of their name, but probably also because we most often see them in flight, when they show a great deal of white in the wings and tail.
At rest, however, a snow bunting is a mix of black, white and burnished browns and orange -- precisely the colors of a winter landscape.
Of course, this is what makes it so difficult to pick a snow bunting out of a field, or even a flock of snow buntings. They simply blend into the background.
So, the light was our friend Thursday. It helped us find the snow bunting. And then the bunting let us look. And look.
Evidently, it had full confidence in its camouflage.
Ordinarily, individual buntings have the security of the flock. Each bird disappears into the mass, making a predator's work more difficult, since it must select, stalk and seize a piece of a whirling whole.
Instead, our solitary bunting chose a different strategy, relying on protective coloration.
The bunting was not the only bird that dazzled us Thursday.
The redpolls that we saw also were stunning. Somehow, the pink color on their breasts seemed brighter than it does on the redpolls that visit my feeders, redpolls that I see through the kitchen window.
It is experiences such as these that lead me out into the cold each December.
These and the comradeship of individuals prone to appreciate the same things.
And the competition that arises between groups exploring different parts of the count area, a circle 15 miles in diameter.
And participating in an organized undertaking involving thousands of others nationwide, all tallying the birds they see and sending the information to the National Audubon Society, which organizes the counts.
And the satisfaction of completing the count and adding something, however little, to the base of information about bird life in winter.
These things, too, lead birders afield in winter -- but mostly, it's the birds.
Jacobs is publisher and editor of the Herald.