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Birders take part in annual Christmas count

December 19, 2017 GMT

Thirty bird lovers scattered throughout Rochester nine days before Christmas to see how many different winged species they could find.

Some people might consider counting birds an odd holiday tradition, but Clifford Hansen, organizer of the Zumbro Valley Audubon Society ’s Christmas bird count, said the national event started in 1900 as a substitute for another Christmas tradition — hunting birds and other animals.

“They decided to go out and just look for birds instead,” he said Saturday of the Audubon event that has been happening for 117 years and has existed in Rochester since 1959.

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Hansen said the reasoning behind the survey of bird species has shifted.

“I think the main thing is recreation,” he said. “It’s a fun thing to do.”

For Joyce Grier, of Rochester, the aspect of citizen science has fueled two decades of participation.

“This is a worldwide event, and it’s really useful for monitoring populations of birds and the movement of birds,” she said, noting historically cardinals were not found in Minnesota but an increase in bird feeders and warmer weather have lured them north.

“The tufted titmouse is another bird that has been extending its territory northerly,” she said, noting it hadn’t been seen in Rochester prior to recent bird counts.

While Grier has been on counts for 20 years, fellow Zumbro Valley member Dave Gross participated in his first count Saturday.

For him, it was a chance to hone his birdwatching skills as participants were divided into nine teams that covered an area extending 7.5 miles in all directions from the intersection of 37th Street and U.S. Highway 52.

“It’s nice that they pair you up with good birders,” he said.

The numbers of species spotted each year can vary.

Hansen said warmer weather means there’s more open water, which increases waterfowl numbers seen.

That open water led Gross’ team to spot swans Saturday morning in a pond north of Foster Arend Park. As the group joined fellow birders for lunch at Quarry Hills Nature Center, the only question was whether they were trumpeter or tundra swans.

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Gross’ digital photos appeared to confirm they were tundra swans, he said.

While open water can increase chances of spotting some birds, Terry Grier said the warm weather can make it more difficult to spot others.

He said colder weather and snow generally drives more birds to backyard feeders, meaning they are easier to spot. Saturday’s warmer weather meant feeders were less active than last year when the temperature hit 20 below zero on the day of the count.

“It’s not as nice for birders,” Terry Grier said, noting counts can have fewer participants during cold weather.

On Saturday, birders spotted some rare species for the area, from the local count’s first yellow-rumped warbler to a lesser scaup.

Hansen said the preliminary count for the Zumbro Valley group was 46 different species — a total of 17,557 birds — with the ability to add any new species that are seen through Tuesday.

Joyce Grier said it’s unlikely the birders that participated Saturday will stop watching the skies in search of new finds, calling it an addictive hobby.

“The more you know about birds, the more you find out there is more to know about them,” she said.

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Crow numbers keep growing

While several relatively common species weren’t spotted in Saturday’s Christmas bird count, members of the Zumbro Valley Audubon Society said two birds were hard to miss: Canada geese and American crows.

A total of 9,875 of the local geese were counted, and crow tallies hit 2,947, which was new high for the Rochester count, according to count organizer Clifford Hansen.

Bird species commonly counted but not seen Saturday included barred owl, belted kingfisher, horned lark, red-breasted nuthatch, golden-crowned kinglet, eastern bluebird, lapland longspur, snow bunting, white-throated sparrow, and common redpoll.

Hansen said those could be added through bird feeder reports that will received by mail.