It may have been less than desirable outside back in mid-December, but that didn’t stop area bird enthusiasts from counting the feathery creatures that adorn back yards and other places throughout the year.
On Dec. 17, local birdwatchers counted 4,025 feathered friends during the 45th Christmas Bird Count in Steele County. Darryl Hill, coordinator of the count, reported 44 different species of birds during the one day count, which included 85 people keeping tabs at feeders and in fields.
The Lapland Longspur was the bird found the most often as it was sighted 494 times. The American Crow came up 457 times followed by the dark-eyed Junco at 447.
Despite the reported numbers, they were lower than in years past, according to Hill. The average over the past has been 4,521 birds. This past year was the 11th lowest count. The highest came in 1998 with 8,430.
“The weather did not cooperate as we had a winter storm warning that advised no travel so this may have influenced our lower numbers of birds,” Hill said, noting this year Lake Kohlmier was frozen over so no water fowl was spotted as they had an open patch the previous year. He added weather is generally a factor on how birds are spotted.
The count, Hill said, covers a 15-mile diameter circle with Havana as the center. The scientific project is sponsored by the National Audubon Society and began 117 years ago.
One of the surprises this year was a Short-eared owl spotted in Rice Lake Park. “It makes it extra fun when you see a bird that’s not usually here,” Hill said.
Owatonna’s count had only one record broken this year. Birdwatchers found more Downey Woodpeckers than ever before in one year.
Other birds that had good increases included Mourning Doves, Northern Cardinal, Lapland Longspurs, House Finch and American Goldfinch. Some seldom seen birds included Oregon dark-eyed Junco, Red-winged Blackbird, American Kestrel, Red-head Woodpecker and Great Horned Owl.
Hill has been involved in every local count since it began 45 years ago. “I’ve always like birds,” he says. “I like to feed the birds.”
His favorite bird is the Black-capped Chickadee, which showed up 233 times during the count. “He’s not afraid of me,” Hill said of the chickadee. “He talks to me and comes up to the feeders,” he added.
The count takes place across the entire country and must be done within a 2-week period beginning Dec. 15. Hill usually picks the first Saturday within the time period. He said the count is like “taking a snapshot” of the bird population to tell which species are going up or down.
Besides being a fun activity, Hill said there is a serious side to the count. “I’m more concerned about conservation and what we’re doing to our environment is most troubling,” he explained.
Environmental factors greatly affect what happens to birds, Hill said. For example, he said, the woods in Northern Minnesota won’t be what they are today in 100 years and that could severely impact the bird population.
The counts also help scientists to determine how global warming is potentially affecting the bird population. “More birds are going extinct because of global warming than any other species,” Hill said. “We hope to do what we can to help them so they don’t go extinct.”
Asked what the normal person can do to help the bird population, Hill said people can plant more flowers and put out boxes to provide more natural environment.
Hill said the count has always focused in the Owatonna area, but he would like to see it expanded to other areas of the county in future years.
“It’s fun to do and we’re doing something for the birds,” Hill said.