UPHAM It takes a dedicated bunch of bird enthusiasts to get the job done, but every year Minot area volunteers eagerly participate in the annual Christmas bird count. The count is part of a national survey of birds conducted by the National Audubon Society every December.
Information gathered from avid birders all across the United States, North Dakota included, is forwarded to the Audubon Society which then issues an annual status report on birds of all species. The information is deemed valuable in helping determine upward or downward trends in bird populations.
"The nice thing about the bird count is that every year we usually see a new species or two," said Gary Eslinger, J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge. "You never know where that's exactly going to be until you do the count. It's always exciting and very interesting."
Kim Fundingsland/MDN - - Gary Eslinger, J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge, briefs bird enthusiasts on routes to be covered for the annual Christmas bird count. At the conclusion of the count the information is forwarded to the National Audubon Society for their national registry.
Eslinger is responsible for organizing the annual count at J. Clark Salyer. Volunteers are given specific areas to search for birds. The same routes are covered each year. Birders are asked to take as much time as their schedule permits and to be as thorough as possible. A good pair of binoculars or a sharp-focusing spotting scope is very helpful for proper identification. So too is an ability to call and to hear responses. Many species of birds are readily identified by the calls they make.
Two birds that have come as a December surprise in recent years at Salyer is the Townsend's solitaire and the robin-like varied thrush. The known range of both birds is much further west.
"It's very unusual, especially the varied thrush, and they've been here every winter for the past two or three years," said Eslinger. "We haven't seen them this winter yet."
A single Townsend's solitaire was spotted during this year's count, but no varied thrush. An increased black-billed magpie count was
noted by Eslinger because magpie numbers in the Salyer count had been on the decline. This year's magpie count was 28, up from a low of two in 2007 and 2008.
"We worked hard trying to find birds," said Sherry Leslie, Minot. "It was pretty slow pickings up there. It's the worst we've ever had it. There was nothing for them to eat. In our area it was all that flooded stuff and none of the underbrush for the little birds. Even the open water had nothing on it."
Not surprisingly, the count verified what many observers have been saying for many months local upland game numbers are down significantly too. Only 16 sharp-tailed grouse and 15 ring-necked pheasants were seen by Wednesday's binocular bunch at Salyer. That compares to 146 and 45, respectively, in the 2009 count.
The count was equally bleak at Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge near Kenmare, not only for upland game birds but other species as well. The Des Lacs bird survey was also conducted last Wednesday.
"We had 22 species, which was down," said Jennifer Jewett, Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge. "The comments were that the birds were down. We just weren't seeing the species we normally count on seeing."
As for upland game, the numbers were dramatically different from 2010. Over 300 sharp-tailed grouse were counted a year ago. This year's total was 20. Pheasants in the Des Lacs count, which has been as high as 100 to 200 in recent years, dropped to just 10 this year.
The total number of birds counted was Salyer was 550. While weather and habitat conditions influence bird numbers, it should be noted that declining overall bird numbers has been the trend for several years. As recently as 2007 Salyer's Christmas bird count was 2,761 and 38 total species. Thirty-two species were seen this year.
Leslie is a long-time birder with an extensive checklist and has participated in numerous bird counts. She's noted a dramatic decrease in bird numbers in recent years, similar to what is being reported elsewhere in the United States.
"It's probably just the beginning of what's going to be happening. Our numbers are way down from when we first started doing this," said Leslie. "The habitat is gone. The food is gone. There's different farming practices and sprays. Birds migrate according to their food source. If it's not there, what are they going to do?"
The Salyer refuge is the largest National Wildlife refuge in North Dakota. It also contains a wide variety of habitat ranging from riverbottom woodlands to sandhills to prairie perfect for attracting and holding good numbers and species of birds, but they weren't there this past week.
"A lot of time we'll get birds coming down from Canada and that has to do with the food source. If the food is lacking up there those birds are going to move down," explained Eslinger. "If they've got good food they are not going to move. Of course, weather drives a lot of it too."
There is another reason too. Extensive flooding that occurred earlier this year altered habitat that birds had previously found very much to their liking. Flood waters killed grasses, bushes and trees and washed away protective cover, seeds, bugs and nests. From a small bird's point of view, there was little or nothing remaining to meet their needs for survival.
If the habitat returns will the birds return? Is the local bird decline an anomaly or part of a much larger and macabre trend? If it is the latter, can it be reversed?
Those questions remain a concern to local bird enthusiasts as well as biologists and bird watchers throughout the United States.