After dinner on New Year's Eve Mariah laid out a festive table of horns, clackers and confetti in anticipation of staying awake until midnight. At 11:11 p.m., almost two hours past her bed time, Mariah finally said, "I'm a little tired. Can we celebrate a early?"
By then the "boys," Jasper and Papa Jack, were snuggled together as felines do, and Robert had taken their cue and gone to bed. With a smile on my face, I looked at her sagging eyelids and agreed we should indeed let the festivities begin. We blew on the noisemakers, scattered confetti and yelled "Happy New Year!" Minutes later Mariah was slumbering soundly and I quietly ushered in 2005 alone in the kitchen while making a batch of chocolate amaretto trufflles.
The next morning, while it was still dark outside, our household started moving.
"We've got to leave by 6:45!," I yelled several times in the course of getting ready. With the roads icy, I wanted to be sure we made it to Pillager in time to rendezvous with other birders for the sixth annual Pillager Audubon Christmas Bird Count.
Crosby Christmas bird count
December 18, 2004
Bald Eagle 5
Sharp-shinned Hawk 2
Red-tailed Hawk 1
Ruffed Grouse 4
Rock Pigeon 61
Pileated Woodpecker 7
Red-bellied Woodpecker 27
Hairy Woodpecker 12
Downy Woodpecker 27
Northern Shrike 6
American Crow 95
Common Raven 3
Blue Jay 95
Black-capped Chickadee 393
White-breasted Nuthatch 50
Red-breasted Nuthatch 13
European Starling 91
Bohemian Waxwing 183
Cedar Waxwing 27
Northern Cardinal 5
Dark-eyed Junco 4
American Goldfinch 119
Common Redpoll 181
Pine Siskin 89
Purple Finch 2
House Finch 1
House Sparrow 122
Total Species 27
Armed with bird books, binoculars, cameras, water, snacks and a box of truffles we headed out the door. Fresh cold air flooded our faces and snow crunched underfoot as we headed to the car.
"It's not too bad out," I said, though it barely was above zero with no wind.
Neither Robert nor Mariah commented. Soon we were rolling down the highway like a greased pig.
A little more than an hour later, the temperature was 13 degrees and the wind had picked up a bit. Our group of cheery birders convened, socialized a bit , broke up into small groups and headed out to their assigned part of the counting circle.
The circle is centered in Pillager and is 15 miles across, covering roughly 177 square miles. It's bounded on the west by Motley, east by the Crow Wing/Cass County border and goes into Pillsbury State Forest on the north and seven miles south of Pillager to include the northern part of Camp Ripley and Morrison County.
In addition to those of us counting "in the field," a few participants also count birds at their feeders and contribute to the statistics. Other geographic parts of the CBC count circle, such as Camp Ripley, are devoid of feeders or are in rural areas where feeders are few and far between. The Gull River section has a number of people who are avid birders and their wealth of feeding stations often result in some of the best sightings of the day. When we evaluate the data it's interesting to note the differing numbers and species that occur in the diversity of locations surveyed.
This year, we joined John Richardson, birder extraordinnaire, to cover the western area between Pillager and Motley. In most years, the greatest excitement is generated by who spots the most unusual bird. We are nothing short of giddy when we get together for lunch and then again at the end of the day, when we do the final tally.
This year the greatest excitement was generated by the icy roads. Only the middle of Hwy. 210 was free of ice; the shoulders were covered solidly, as were the rural roads we attempted to travel.
Although distracted by slipping and sliding on the slick roadways, the four of us did manage to garner a few stellar birds for our checklist. We spotted an immature golden eagle flying low over an open field and were able to observe it for several minutes as it glided and swooped. Two ravens entered the area, along with a number of crows.
While we watched, the daring ravens started to dive-bomb the eagle. While birds diving at raptors in not unique, we all remarked about how quickly the eagle could turn the ravens into a pile of feathers.
As the morning progressed, three northern shrikes were noted. Mariah is not fond of shrikes because of their habit of impaling their prey. It is not out of the ordinary to see grasshoppers, mice or even small birds hanging on barbed wire fences after meeting their fate with a shrike.
We also got good looks at several rough-legged hawks. Those three species were our highlights, but the snow buntings, pileated woodpecker and more common birds were nevertheless equally as important. By 1:30 p.m. we decided to head home, as forecasted snow flurries started to fall. Other birders who lived closer continued the count.
As you can see from the final compilation, we had some interesting notations. We recorded record high numbers of trumpeter swans, golden eagles, rough-legged hawks, common ravens, red-breasted nuthatches, pine siskins and house sparrows. There was a record low of hairy and downy woodpeckers, as well as black-capped chickadees. A single red-shouldered hawk and a great gray owl were seen for the first time for the Pillager Christmas Bird Count. In total, 37 different species were listed and 1,906 individual birds counted.
This is the sixth annual Pillager CBC, so we are now able to start looking for trends in the birds found within the count circle. Gathering this information over time will allow us to assess how alterations in habitat quality, availability and fragmentation affect our local birds and other wildlife.
The Pillager CBC is done on New Year's Day. It's a great way to usher in the new year with friends, both feathered and human.
Andrea Lee Lambrecht, naturalist & outdoor writer, may be reached at email@example.com
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