For the Birds Radio Program: Isabella Christmas Bird Count

Original Air Date: Jan. 7, 2003

Record numbers of Purple Finches and Red-breasted Nuthatches and more!

Duration: 4′20″


At 5:45 in the morning on Saturday, January 4, I headed up to Isabella with two of my friends, Billie and Janet, for the Isabella Christmas Bird Count. At first light, as we drove up Lake County Highway 2 near the Sand River, we spotted a Ruffed Grouse on the side of the road, picking up grit in the semi-darkness. Then we saw a pair of ravens, perched side by side in a tall spruce, huddled for warmth and companionship, soft silhouettes in the gloom.

The sun never really rose—it was murky and dim all day, muting colors and making the entire day endless twilight. But there was no wind and the temperature was fairly mild, providing fairly decent opportunities to find birds. And there were plenty of birders on hand beating around the bushes looking. Forty-seven people had signed up to participate. We were in groups mostly of threes and fours, sometimes walking, skiing, or snowshoeing, sometimes standing around watching bird feeders, sometimes driving from point to point. But whatever the mode, we were all watching and listening, focused on birds.

And thanks to all that effort and the mild weather, this year’s Isabella Christmas Bird Count tallied several record-breaking counts. We broke the all-time record for Ruffed Grouse, with an even dozen, starting with that one my group saw by the Sand River, more than doubled the all-time record of Pileated Woodpeckers with 18, and found a record-breaking 152 Downy Woodpeckers, 12 Black-backed Woodpeckers, 130 Blue Jays, 719 Black-capped Chickadees, 562 Red-breasted Nuthatches, 185 Purple Finches, 106 American Goldfinches, and 206 White-winged Crossbills.

One species that I’m very concerned about, the Evening Grosbeak, appeared in fairly good, if not record-breaking numbers. A total of 278 were counted, though my group didn’t find any. On other counts throughout the northland, evening grosbeaks were virtually non-existent. This was the first year in the history of the Duluth Christmas Bird Count that not a single Evening Grosbeak was found in the entire count circle.

The finch du jour of the Isabella count was probably the Purple Finch. Most years none are found, and in the few years they have appeared, they were mainly at feeders. This year they were all over, in nice-sized flocks, and hardly any were at feeders. I watched a few eating buds on aspen trees.

But the bird du jour for the count was the Red-breasted Nuthatch. The 562 counted more than doubled the previous high for this species. These cool little guys were in big flocks. My group counted 138, the most of any group, because I discovered a trick—I made little peeping sounds, trying to match my voice to the animated, agitated little beeps they make when in a large group, and for some reason that seemed to entice them to fly over and check me out. That made counting them much easier.

We were exhausted at days end, but the jolly dinner, eating Mary Shedd’s famous lasagna and swapping stories as we totaled the days’ numbers and handed out prizes for no reasons whatsoever, a long-standing tradition of the Isabella Christmas Bird Count, it was easy to understand why bird counts have become such an institution. A day spent in the jolly company of nuthatches and crossbills and chickadees, and an evening spent with good friends—who could ask for more?