Counters head out for annual tally of Minn. birds

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Searching the sky
Joanna Eckles, 48, of Stillwater, Minnesota, and Chris Mortenson, 43, of Minneapolis, searched for birds in New Brighton, Minnesota on Saturday, December 21, 2013 during the 108th Annual Christmas Bird Count.
Caroline Yang / For MPR News

Birders tend to be morning people, so spirits are high this morning as birders fill the Springbrook Nature Center, preparing for a century-old ritual, the Audubon Society's annual winter bird census.

The weather -- no wind, overcast, a temperature above zero -- is perfect for the quest. The 39 volunteers clad in winter gear get their assignments and head out with a list of every bird species ever seen in Minnesota.

Part of: Minnesota Sounds and Voices

For them, the Christmas bird count is equal parts adventure, fellowship and science -- the largest and oldest citizen science project in the world, according to the Audubon Society.

Volunteers across North America fan out on a handful of weekends over the holiday season. Teams identify and count the number of bird species in defined areas, the same areas every year. That includes Minnesota, which lies within the Mississippi River flyway, making it an avian freeway and a bird counter's oasis.

Sometimes, of course, the birds don't cooperate.

Joanna Eckles of the Audubon Society of Minnesota is undaunted as her team, embedded in Mounds View, begins the day with a slow start -- three crows.

Bald eagle
A bald eagle was spotted in New Brighton, Minnesota, as a team of four birdwatchers counted birds during the 108th Annual Christmas Bird Count on Saturday, December 21, 2013.
Caroline Yang / For MPR News

Sightings pick up as the group pulls off a main road onto a side street in a neighborhood.

First time volunteer Chris Mortenson spots a red-headed woodpecker because, well, the bird's head is red. But veteran counter Elizabeth Closmore clarifies the identification as a red-bellied woodpecker.

"It's not named very accurately," says Closmore, who notes the red belly under its wings. She's been on 45 counts, starting when she was a high school student in St. Paul. "Good spotting, good spotting," she tells Mortenson.

Mortenson, a science teacher at a Twin Cities charter school, says he's impressed with the quick eyes of the more seasoned birders on the team.

"We were driving in the car and they went, 'Oh look, there's three blue jays,' and I couldn't of course see anything, but I'm learning," he says.

This is the 114th year for the count nationally and 108th in Minnesota. The census began when people went out on Christmas day to shoot every winged thing in sight, and they counted them, according to the Audubon Society.

These days, the counters are armed with binoculars and smart phones with apps for bird songs and calls that help them identify species.

Planning the count
Bonnie Sample of St. Paul, Minnesota, and Joanna Eckles of Stillwater look over the map of their assigned region before heading out to count birds on Saturday, December 21, 2013. Sample, Coordinator of the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, lead a group of four people to cover region 6 on the map for the 108th Annual Christmas Bird Count.
Caroline Yang / For MPR News

The Minnesota Ornithologist Union says in that time the count has grown to include nearly 70 census circles. The circles are 15 miles in diameter and dot the state. Every year volunteers are dispatched to assigned areas to log the number of species and birds in that sector.

The ornithology group says spotters have identified more than 200 species during the winter census. Biologists say more than 400 species have been identified as nesting or stopping in Minnesota throughout the year.

Over the years, veteran bird watchers have noticed some intriguing changes in Minnesota's bird populations - many more crows mallard ducks and Canada geese, says Closmore. "Robins were never on a Christmas bird count," she says. "Mourning doves are here now."

Why things are changing is an open question.

The hope is the bird count, as well as an effort by the Audubon Society to create a Minnesota breeding bird atlas, might shed some light on the matter. Are climate change and habitat loss affecting bird populations?

Bonnie Sample, who works for the Audubon Society and is helping build the Minnesota atlas, won't speculate. But she cautions the trends don't happen overnight.

Consider the northern cardinal.

One hundred years ago the northern cardinal was seen only in a corner of southeastern Minnesota.

"And they've been observed now all the way up to the Canadian border," Sample says. "There's all this movement that happens over time. But time is relative. You sometimes need a hundred years, sometimes less than that."

Back on the hunt, the birder team looks up to see a creature that doesn't require binoculars or a bird song app to recognize as it flies low less than a quarter-mile away.

"Somebody big," Eckles calls out. "Eagle coming. Eagle coming. Eagle coming."