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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Count brings back memories of my start in birding

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 1/13/21

For me, taking part in this year’s Christmas Bird Count in the Cook area was like a walk down memory lane. I took part in my first CBC, as they’re known, back in the mid-1970s when I was …

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Count brings back memories of my start in birding

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For me, taking part in this year’s Christmas Bird Count in the Cook area was like a walk down memory lane. I took part in my first CBC, as they’re known, back in the mid-1970s when I was still in junior high. I had begun to develop an interest in birds a few years earlier, but when I walked one evening into a meeting of the Minnesota River Valley Audubon Club at Oak Grove Junior High in Bloomington, where I went to school, a whole world began to unfold.
It was a club dominated by middle-aged or older members, so the arrival of a gangly kid at their monthly soiree definitely caught their attention. By the time I left that evening I had open invitations from a half dozen of the members to go birding and had my official introduction to the sweet little old lady, whose name I have sadly forgotten, who sold the really good bird seed you couldn’t find in stores out of the back of her garage.
And, of course, I was recruited for the Minnesota River Valley CBC, which included Nine Mile Creek and the Minnesota River bottoms in Bloomington, my usual stomping grounds as a kid. I usually went with another member, who was probably in his 30s, definitely making him one of the younger members of the club.
It was, for me, the first real introduction to how science actually worked. In schools, unfortunately, science is mostly taught as history, rather than as a rigorous process for understanding our world. As participants in the CBC, we not only recorded the birds we saw, but the routes we covered, hours in the field, and the miles traveled, all of which help the ornithologists who study the CBC results reduce the noise in the data that comes from the variability in counting efforts from year-to-year.
The counting itself was always interesting, but the best part of the event, for me, was the get-together at the home of the count coordinator, when the counters would typically gather to share their results. It was the slightly competitive side of the CBC, when the counters could compare their efforts with others. Being able to report something rare or uncommon would prompt an occasional ooh or aah from the other counters, which was always satisfying.
Unfortunately, such get-togethers, at least this year, were yet another victim of our COVID-era. The Cook area counters have regularly held a potluck get-together to tally results, but that event was canceled, just like everything else these days.
My counting partner and I did run into other counters, running their usual routes, and we had the chance to chat with at least a couple of them, outside and socially distanced. It seemed like we were doing pretty well by comparison, having run into a modest flock of red crossbills on Sassas Road and a three-pack of boreal chickadees on the Wakely Road. We even caught a glimpse of a possible spruce grouse on the Johnson Road, but it was too fleeting to make a positive ID so it went unrecorded. Maybe next time. We were hoping to spot one of the great gray owls that had been hanging out in the East Littlefork area but missed that one as well.
In the end, we counted over a hundred birds, about half of them chickadees. We found ten different species, which was a reminder that most birds hightail it from the North Country this time of year. Other than the indefatigable chickadees, ravens and jays, a few woodpeckers, and northern finches, it’s pretty slim pickings.
It was good to explore some of the backroads a bit east of Cook, which were just inside the 15-mile diameter count circle centered on Cook itself. I spend a lot of time in the Lost Lake Swamp, but mostly on the heavily-forested east end. The swamp extends nearly to Cook, and this was a chance to familiarize myself again with the west side of that interesting complex of wetland types. The intermingling of a little agricultural land into the picture certainly creates the opportunity to run into birds I rarely see on the east side of the swamp. Magpies, bluebirds, and bobolinks are some of the birds that regularly show up on the swamp’s west end, that I’d never see here where the forest stretches nearly unbroken for miles. It goes to show how much of a difference habitat makes when it comes to birds.
Meanwhile, the CBC and other counts that have been established more recently, continue to engage large numbers of people in meaningful science on the population trends of so many birds. A total of 52 people took part in the Cook count this year, for example, covering virtually every passable road in the count circle and dozens of feeders. Multiply that times the many hundreds of counts across the country and you have an idea of the numbers of people who take part in this annual effort. In many places, they’re helping to document how the losses of critical habitat in many parts of the country are seriously affecting bird species. In our area, the CBC counts are mostly documenting the arrival of new bird species, like wild turkeys, cardinals, and red-bellied woodpeckers, that were virtually unheard of in the North Country until recent years. A combination of warmer winters and recreational bird and deer feeding are likely contributing to the ability of these species to maintain a foothold in our region.
The CBC counts this year also confirmed what most birders already suspected, and that’s that pine grosbeak numbers rebounded sharply after last year’s disappointing numbers. And evening grosbeaks have appeared in the region in larger numbers than in more than a decade on many counts, including Cook’s, where they recorded 63. That’s an encouraging sign for a species that has been in noticeable decline for the past two decades.
While the scientific aspects of the count are invaluable, Julie Grahn, who has been the count compiler for the past nine years, said it seems that birds and nature in general have provided a comfort to many people during the uncertainty and stress of the pandemic. At a time when we’ve been focused on rising case numbers and death counts, we can still rely on the chickadees, nuthatches, blue jays, and pine grosbeaks to show up at the feeders at the crack of dawn to brighten our day. For me, that’s been a constant now for nearly half a century.

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