Bird watching during February in the Red River Valley is not a crowded hobby. After the Christmas Bird Count is finished, the number of people actually leaving the warmth of their homes to bird is limited during midwinter.
I can’t blame them really. It can be an uncomfortable experience at times. It won’t be until that March thaw, when the meadowlarks and waterfowl begin to appear, that the bulk of birders begin to venture forth again.
It was a cold morning on a recent Saturday. A temperature struggling to top zero degrees combined with a strong south wind made for one of those February days in the Upper Great Plains that demand “layering.” It wasn’t a record-breaker by any means, but bitter enough to make a reasonable person think twice before grabbing binoculars and strolling around outside looking for birds. A few of us did, though, as part of a four-hour block set aside by Fargo Parks and Audubon at Forest River Drive south of town.
Truth be told, there is little in the way of species diversity around here during this, the ebb of the climatological year. Beyond the handful of hardy permanent residents plus the modest number of species coming from more northern latitudes that opt to stay the winter, there is a rather limited supply of birdlife.
That’s just a cold hard fact.
That’s not to say it isn’t worth getting out and seeking the odd rarity or that boisterous flock of red crossbills that may appear at any time. On the contrary, in some ways it’s an ideal time to hone one’s skills.
Sound seems to carry forever across great distances in dense, cold air, an edge when it comes to finding avian life. Trees are leafless, making virtually every critter occupying lofty heights among the limbs visible, a hugely advantageous condition not present during the summer. There are no wood ticks to pick off your pants this time of year; a nice perk. In addition, during the entire time I walked, not once did I see someone swat a mosquito.
Twenty minutes. That’s how much time it took before hearing our first bird, a black-capped chickadee. Once the sun began to warm the south side of trees, things stirred a bit more. A downy woodpecker here, a white-breasted nuthatch there; we even found a couple of timid, cryptically plumaged, bark-clinging brown creepers.
To find birds in winter, one has to realize a simple concept. There is no nesting taking place (great horned owls notwithstanding) so the hormones that dictate most bird behavior during the spring and summer are absent. Instead, species really have only one overarching concern: survival. With that in mind, remember two words: food and cover.
If birds are not actively seeking the food required to survive the coming long night – something they will spend much of the day doing – they are roosting in cover, usually on the sunny side of it. Therefore, the prudent bird watcher learns to identify potential food sources.
Trees species like birches, spruce and ash produce a lot of seeds some bird species readily feed upon. Mountain ash and crabapples usually hold fruit quite late into the winter that cedar waxwings, American robins and others eagerly seek. Natural weedy areas with lots of seeds attract American goldfinches, common redpolls and other finches. Of course, ready-made bird feeders stocked with seeds in a backyard will garner the most attention.
By event’s end on that Saturday, we had tallied 14 species, a number probably gotten in the first five minutes of a May outing. Still, among the finds were cedar waxwings, a barred owl, a female northern cardinal, and an improbable group of three common grackles.
There seems to be more socializing than actual bird watching among the binocular-toting crowd this time of year. It’s a function of weather and the limitations on just what is out there in terms of species, I suppose.
The off-season, though, is ending even now. Just last week, I saw the first local report of great horned owls sitting on a nest and our first “spring” migrants (horned larks) are beginning to return to area fields. It will be some time before things pick up in a big way. Just knowing the end of winter is within reach, however, makes the temperature outside feel just a little warmer.
Corliss is a West Fargo native, avid birder and a North Dakota Game and Fish instructor.