REGIONAL— Recent Christmas bird counts around the area confirmed that the winter of 2019-20 will be remembered as an unusual season for the lack of some birds and the abundance of others. …
REGIONAL— Recent Christmas bird counts around the area confirmed that the winter of 2019-20 will be remembered as an unusual season for the lack of some birds and the abundance of others.
Perhaps the biggest bird story of the year here in the North Country is the near-total absence of pine grosbeaks, those spectacular wine-colored finches that normally brighten up winter feeders across the region every winter. Of all the area counts, including ones in Cook, Ely, Isabella, and Aurora, only a single counter— Mary Shedd, of Tower— spotted six pine grosbeaks during the Isabella count. And that was still a record low in Isabella, well below the previous low count of 20 in the 38 years of the Isabella count.
Other northern finches were in limited supply as well, as an abundant seed and berry crop in central Canada appears to have kept many of the region’s normal winter visitors north of the border.
“The whole finch scene was pretty pathetic,” said Steve Wilson, who organizes and compiles the Isabella count. It was a similar story in the Cook area, where compiler Julie Grahn reported no pine grosbeaks, pine siskins, or redpolls, birds that are normally found in good numbers in the area this time of year. The low finch counts came despite exceptionally mild weather, that made it easy for counters to spend extra time in the field during the various counts.
Just as some northern birds have yet to venture out of central Canada, some birds that normally leave the North Country this time of year appeared to be hanging on as well. All of the area counts reported significant numbers of goldfinches, which are usually scarce during most winters in northeastern Minnesota. Nine cedar waxwings, which are normally replaced here in winter by their slightly hardier and more colorful cousins, the Bohemian waxwings, were spotted during the Isabella count for only the second time. A tree sparrow and a mourning dove were both spotted during the Cook count, while counters in Ely spotted a dark-eyed junco.
Meanwhile, counters found jays, particularly blue jays, in record or near-record numbers.
Counters in Isabella tallied a total of 157 blue jays, shattering the previous record high of 130. “It seemed the woods were alive with blue jays,” said Wilson. He was also pleased by a sizable rebound in gray jay numbers, with 74 counted, well above the count’s long-term average of 43. “That was a nice rebound,” said Wilson, who has previously made note of recent low gray jay numbers on the count.
Raven numbers were also above average, with 153 tallied on the Ely count and 98 at Isabella.
It was also a strong year for red-breasted nuthatches, with 180 tallied in Ely and 123 in Isabella.
Other highlights included two hawk owls on the Cook count, along with six black-billed magpies, and 18 bald eagles. Counters in Isabella counted 11 spruce grouse, well above the long-term average of two, although Wilson noted that four of those birds were tallied as roadkill along Lake County Hwy. 2, which passes through an area with a relatively high density of spruce grouse. The birds, often known as “fool hens” tend to lack wariness around both vehicles and humans. The species is believed to be on the decline in Minnesota, so Wilson said he’d like to explore options for alerting drivers on Hwy. 2 about the frequent presence of spruce grouse on the road. Like many birds, spruce grouse are attracted to roadsides in winter to access the grit they need to assist in the digestion of their food.