Not many birds spend the winter in the Red River Valley, and that means birders especially value the ones that do.
And the ones that show up only in winter — the northern migrants and the wanderers.
All of these will be sought on the round of Christmas Bird Counts that gets underway this week.
Elsewhere in this section — or on this website — there’s a list of the counts and instructions for joining each.
The sharp-tailed grouse is one of the species I’ll be looking for Wednesday on the Icelandic State Park Count. We’ll meet at 7:30 a.m. at the park headquarters west of Cavalier, N.D. — just off N.D. Highway 5.
This is the 27th year for the Icelandic count, and I’ve found sharp-tailed grouse at the same spot almost every year. I’m looking forward to seeing them again this week.
I am the “bird counter” referred to in the headline.
Sharp-tailed grouse aren’t rare by any means. Their numbers do fluctuate quite a bit, though, largely due to changes in land use and extremes in weather. It’s always reassuring to find the birds, and it’s always instructive to see how they’ve fared.
Sharpies are iconic birds for a number of reasons.
They are well-known for their courtship rituals. These involve struts and whirls and other displays.
We won’t be seeing such displays this week, of course—although grouse sometimes dance while there is still snow on the ground. That would be in late February or March, though.
In mid-December, the grouse most likely will be sunning themselves. At least I hope that’s what they’re doing. A grouse perched in an aspen tree is easier to see than a grouse crouched in a road ditch.
Grouse do avail themselves of such perches when conditions are just right. It’s comic to see a bulky bird on a thin twig, but the twig is supple enough to bend under the weight and the grouse well-balanced enough to be comfortable.
One thing a perching grouse communicates instantly: The name “sharp-tailed grouse” is appropriate. There’s a reason the birds aren’t called “long-tailed.”
Perching seems a peculiar behavior for grouse.
What explains it?
The birds must derive warmth from the early morning sun. The elevation must give them a pretty good view of their range.
Perhaps there is a survival element in each of these.
But it’s hard to resist the idea that the birds are enjoying themselves.
In snowy weather, they are quite comfortable passing much of the day in tunnels they’ve constructed under the snow. In snowless winters, they hunker down in heavy cover. They’re well- supplied with food, ordinarily. Grouse are especially fond of rose hips, but they take fruits from other prairie plants, as well. Of course, they also glean seeds.
All in all, the grouse are emblematic winter birds.
The Icelandic State Park Christmas Bird Count can produce five different species of “chicken-like birds,” a good share of the three dozen or so species we expect to see.
Wild turkeys often are abundant on the count, even though they aren’t native to northeast North Dakota. For that matter, neither are gray partridges, which we usually find, or ring-necked pheasants, which are present in some years. The only other native “chicken” we might encounter is the ruffed grouse, which has been found on several counts.
The Icelandic count often has good numbers of raptors, especially bald eagles, which hang around to feast on gut piles left by deer hunters.
We also have northern finches in most years, including redpolls, both common and hoary, pine grosbeaks and—now and again—crossbills.
Of corvids, we should have crows, ravens, magpies and blue jays, and one memorable year we had a Clark’s nutcracker.
Robins aren’t likely. Nor are 100 or more species we might find on a summer day.
So why count birds in winter?
Tradition: That’s the short answer.
Like all traditions, though, the Christmas Bird Count has a back story. The counts began as a reaction to an earlier tradition of Christmas hunts. Rather than kill the birds, the organizers thought, let’s record what we see, instead.
The idea caught on.
This is Year 116 for the counts. Local counts developed more recently. This is Year 55 for the Grand Forks count. There are several counts scheduled in our area for which this will be Year One.