Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, December 28, 2020

Christmas Bird Count 2020

Madison Audubon Christmas Bird Count 1979
Madison CBC Compilation, 1979

In December, 1976, I did my first Christmas Bird Count, in Madison, Wisconsin. It immediately became a treasured annual tradition. After doing four bird counts in Madison, we moved to Duluth in 1981 and I switched to the Duluth counts. My daughter Katie was born on December 10, 1983. We came home from the hospital on the 13th, but I wasn’t nearly ready to participate in that year’s count on the 17th. That was the only year I missed until Katie was in college and needed a ride home from Oberlin right on the weekend of the count. I also had to miss in 2008 and 2009 when I was working at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Since then, I’ve missed several counts due to spending time with Katie in New York. 

The Christmas Bird Count is a sacred tradition for a great many birders—some even do several year after year. As much as I love both the feeling of tradition and doing the actual count, I never felt too bad missing it for my daughter. 

Now, thanks to the pandemic, Katie and her husband refugeed to Duluth to live with us for the duration. If it were still just the two of them, I’d have been able to do the bird count on December 20, with modifications for social distancing but sort of close to normal, but there’s also a new baby in the picture. I spend at least a couple of hours with Walter every morning, after Katie feeds him, so she and Michael can get a bit of uninterrupted sleep. 

And this year, because of the pandemic, we’re being extra cautious anyway. Russ and I are both pushing 70, putting us at higher risk, and my heart attack this past January puts me at even more risk. No way would we consider putting a baby and nursing mother at risk with carelessness, so I didn’t go out with my usual Christmas Bird Count group. Janet Riegle, who does a much better job of leading the group covering our count area than I did anyway, did most of the route with JR Kelsey while I kept track of the few birds at my feeder during my precious Walter time. Then Russ and I took a nice walk to cover at least a couple miles of our count area.  

Black-capped Chickadee in Northern White-Cedar
Black-capped Chickadee on our CBC route, a few blocks from home.
Bald Eagle
Russ's and my Bald Eagle on the CBC

We didn’t see any species that other people hadn’t also seen, with only 6 species on our walk—a Bald Eagle was the only one I hadn’t seen in my own yard. And my yard list was pretty paltry, too—just 9 species, the best being Red-bellied and Pileated Woodpeckers.

So my contribution was pretty paltry, but the overall Duluth Christmas Bird Count results were surprisingly good. Two never-before-seen species were added to the official count list—Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Eastern Screech-Owl. My dear friend Erik Bruhnke planted himself at Hawk Ridge all day, where he counted a record-smashing 83 Bald Eagles. Other birders tallied 44 eagles, but only individuals that were unlikely to have passed by Hawk Ridge were included in the day’s final tally of 112. This year’s 36 Pileated Woodpeckers tallied broke the previous record of 34 set in 2007.

Other splendid birds found on count day included California Gull, Great Gray Owl, and Townsend’s Solitaire. Tim Dawson had a Brown Thrasher at his feeder—a December sighting of that bird, one of my very favorite species, would be a thrill, but there were already 10 previous Duluth Christmas Bird Count sightings of that one. Two Northern Flickers were also tallied, the 10th time for that species. Janet found a Hermit Thrush in our count area—had I been part of my usual group, it would have been the first I’d ever seen on a Christmas Bird Count.

There were more Rough-legged Hawks than usual—11, the third highest total ever—which makes sense in a year when so many were tallied from Hawk Ridge in the fall. Common Ravens, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, House Finches, White-winged Crossbills, and Bohemian Waxwings were all seen in above normal numbers. And the species that have been steady in my backyard—Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers and both nuthatches—were counted in much higher numbers this year than last year. 

The Sax-Zim Bog count on December 14 broke its all-time record with 39 species, including a first-time-ever Red-bellied Woodpecker. 

One of my favorite counts, though I’ve only been able to participate a handful of times over the years, the Isabella count, takes place on Saturday, January 2. I won’t be participating thanks to the pandemic and grandma duties, but one of my favorite annual winter traditions is reading Steve Wilson’s wonderful pre-count invitation and then his post-count summary. The Christmas Bird Count season lasts through January 5. 

During this once-in-a-lifetime emergency, it’s lovely to maintain the traditions we can, even if they must be modified so we can protect each other. If people stay prudent about social distancing and getting vaccinated as their turns come up, next year I may be back doing Christmas Bird Counts the normal way. But even when family priorities keep me from fully participating, it’s always fun keeping track of what other people are seeing. 

I hope you’re having a lovely, if subdued, holiday season, too. Stay safe and well, dear listener.