BURNSVILLE (AP) -- The elusive spotted towhee proved to be elusive indeed.
A trio of intrepid birders had high hopes of spying the white-bellied, rusty-breasted bird. Uncommon to the Twin Cities, one had been spotted Friday near a home in Burnsville.
"Do you see it?" bird enthusiast Dave Cahlander said hopefully, as his fellow bird-watchers peered into some brush Saturday. They never found it.
Although their disappointment was palpable, they trudged on despite blizzardlike conditions.
And so did lots of others who participated throughout the state in the 101st Christmas bird count, an annual event sponsored by the National Audubon Society. Each year, more than 50,000 bird lovers participate in the event, an all-day census of early-winter bird populations.
"Sometimes you'll see some unusual species of birds around this time of year, but usually they won't last the winter, or if they do, they might die in March," explained Cahlander, a member of the Minnesota River Valley Audubon chapter.
Case in point: a rather large pelican that was spotted in the warm water surrounding Xcel Energy's Black Dog power plant in Burnsville.
Usually the Minnesota River Valley chapter will spot about 70 species during the bird count, which technically lasts 24 hours. But this year was different; compiler Mark Ochs anticipated spotting only about 60 species because of the inclement weather. Likewise, the number of spotters from the chapter dwindled to three this year.
They tackled their 17-square-mile patch of turf, much of it in the Burnsville-Bloomington area within earshot of the airport, as enthusiasts from other chapters statewide surveyed their areas.
The St. Paul chapter sent out six die-hard birdwatchers.
"It's like a treasure hunt," said Joan Galli, secretary of the society's board of directors. "You don't know what you're going to find or whether you're going to get arrested for appearing in people's back yards with binoculars."
Notebooks and binoculars in hand, Galli and her partner, Mary Abbey, headed for New Brighton. The duo marveled at a cluster of mallard ducks assembled around the slushy part of the otherwise snow-covered Rice Creek.
"I bet there's 250 or 300 ducks in there," said Galli, who spends her weekdays as a nongame wildlife specialist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. "It's the open water that's attracting them. ... It would be nice if there'd be one wood duck."
During a hike in the woods near the creek, Abbey made a find -- a kingfisher, a blue bird with a long bill that eats small fish.
"It's always exciting to add another species," Abbey said.
Then the pair struck gold.
"Whoa, there's a red-bellied woodpecker," Galli said. "C'mon. There she goes. Oh, excellent."
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