Another Christmas season has come with the joys of family, fellowship and good food. With year's close also comes the Christmas Bird Count season for birders. About 2,000 counts are performed throughout the country and roughly 20 within North Dakota from Dec. 14 to Saturday. The Bismarck-Mandan count took place on Dec 16. The temperature reading at the time of the morning rendezvous Sunday was a balmy 22 degrees on the plus side; while the past two years, it was was -20 degrees cold.
The six groups fanned out over the vast area of about 167 square miles — 15 mile diameter circle centered at the Capitol building — and started tallying species. One group crossed the river to check the hotspots on the Mandan side of the river while five groups canvassed the Bismarck side of the river as far as Lincoln.
Despite the warm temperatures, an ice-free Missouri river and little snow cover, birding was tough. Generally speaking when we have an open winter, birds don’t need to rely on feeders for food as it is easily found elsewhere in natural sources outside the city.
The presence of hawks and berry feeding birds indicate an abundance of food, or lack thereof. Apparently, there isn’t much food around as many indicator species, such as robins, were observed in low numbers. Lastly, for several winters now there has been good numbers of northern species irrupting south to the lower 48 states. This year that hasn’t happened. Fun species, such as crossbills, redpolls and snow buntings, are non-existent.
During the lunch hour, groups reassembled one by one to share the results. The word was slow, slow, slow. The 39 tick-marks tallied were a far cry from last year’s 45 species on the noon list. With the beautiful weather, you might think there should be lots of birds, but that was not the case.
The 2018 final tally as it stands right now is 46 species, which is below the 20-year average of 49 species this millennium, with the highest CBC of 60 species checked off in 2013.
As the data sheets were reviewed for the day, few species seem to be noteworthy. Careful scanning of thousands of geese on the river revealed white-fronted goose for the fourth time — all in this decade. A pair of gadwall was recorded for only the second time, with the other in 2011. An Ebird alert on my phone indicated three eastern bluebirds were found in Fort Lincoln State Park for a fifth CBC record. A feeder watcher sent me a photo of a brown thrasher, a summer resident dining on suet. This was its third CBC report, with the others being in 1976 and 2006.
A merlin and gray partridge was seen the day after the count and a white-throated sparrow before the count so they are included as “count week” but does not add to the total.
Of course, we always look forward to the next Christmas Bird Count season, but, until then, we will certainly enjoy the birdlife that passes by and reminisce about memorable birding experiences.