I'm really wearing down after a dozen days with a headache and hacking cough. I think a little cabin fever has set in as well. Considering my current condition, perhaps you'll forgive the rambling nature of this column and the questionable wisdom of photographing birds while stricken with a chronic cough, incontinence (or is it incompetence?) and cabin fever.
"Where are all the birds?" was a question presented to those of us conducting the fourth annual Pillager Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC). Our team, consisting of Pam and Ken Perry and our family of three, consistently heard that question as we stopped at the Wambekes, Engelbrechts and a few other homes of regular bird watchers. We discussed the oddities of bird numbers at the wrap-up session at day's end and I wrote about the results of the CBC in my column shortly thereafter. While we gained four new species this year, the number of individual birds was down by about 250 birds from 2002.
Blue jays, red-breasted nuthatches and even the ubiquitous chickadees were spotted in fewer numbers. None of the bird counters were sorry to see European starlings had dropped from 195 to 106. There were no pine siskins, pine grosbeaks or evening grosbeaks seen by any of the teams. The most startling change was the count of the common redpoll, down from 1,119 to zero.
While some species were definitely lower in numbers, there were some that showed a notable rise from last year. For example, Bill Brown's group spotted 25 wild turkeys, the first that species has been counted. Some of us were skeptical and wondered if Bill hadn't made an illegal run into one of the Brainerd grocery stores to substantiate his sighting.
In addition, the combined birders counted nine Canada geese last year, 356 this year; American crows jumped from 168 to 242; Bohemian waxwings from 12 to 68 and their close cousin, the cedar waxwing, numbered 33, up from none in 2001 and 2002. Three American tree sparrows were recorded in 2002, 22 this year' dark-eyed juncos increased from 25 to 88; snow buntings 68 to 318; American goldfinches 71 up 56 to 127 and 66 purple finches were noted in comparison to none last year. House sparrows, the bane of bluebirds and many birders, have been steadily increasing in the count circle -- growing from 23 in 2000 to 82 the next year, 105 last year and 185 in 2003.
After the CBC results were printed in the newspaper, other people commented on the lack of birds. Pastor Darrell Pedersen devoted his article in the Religion section of the Dispatch to the topic, "The empty bird feeder," which was inspired by my CBC column. Another gentleman wrote a letter to the editor in response to my mentioning the results of the Pillager Count.
Last week Ray Lovitz of Pequot Lakes called to inquire about not having seen even one grosbeak at his feeders this winter. I told him I hadn't seen one either. I attributed the absence of pine and evening grosbeaks, who are seedeaters, to the abundance of the evergreen cone crop and the light or lack of snow cover farther north where grosbeaks thrive in the conifers.
When I got to thinking about it, I received the first inquiry of "where are all the birds?" back in November from Dave Huehnert. He lives about eight miles northeast of Pine River and feeds birds year round. Dave said he hadn't had any goldfinches at the thistle feeder since early fall. All other years he had plenty of goldfinches at the feeder all year. He asked if a disease was affecting the species and, since our residences are not many miles apart, if I had goldfinches at my feeders.
I called Dave and said I was surprised at the number of goldfinches I had this year. As we talked, goldfinches occupied all the perches on the two thistle feeders, goldfinches were on the ground picking up thistle and others were in queue on the tree branches, waiting for an opportunity to get a place at the feeders.
It's been a most unusual year weatherwise. Open water has remained on North Long Lake, Lake Minnetonka and Forest Lake. We surely are experiencing environmental changes. Some are obvious, like the lack of snow; others are more subtle, like the fluctuating numbers of birds.
In closing, I must tell you about the photos for this column. I have to laugh as I think about Mariah's comments to me on the day I was snapping away. She's accustomed to me taking photos and is never surprised by a sudden stop when we're driving. She almost always is equally enamored by whatever subject caught my eye.
But when I stopped the car and grabbed my camera, she looked at our surroundings and said, "Mom, what are you going to take a picture of?"
"Birds," I replied.
"Those birds," I pointed.
"Why?" she asked with a perplexed look on her sweet face. After a few seconds she said, "Mom, are you OK?"
"I'm going to show readers of my column all the birds I'm seeing during this weird winter in answer to their question, "Where are all the birds?"
Mariah giggled and shortly thereafter, got into the swing of things as she quickly pointed out new species to add to our growing collection of photographs. Later, I paid premium photo developing prices for those photos of wooden birds. What was I thinking? Can I attribute it to a chronic cough and cabin fever?
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