For the Birds Radio Program: Isabella Christmas Bird Count 1995

Original Air Date: Jan. 9, 1995

Laura spent New Years Day counting birds on the famous Isabella Christmas Bird Count. 4:19

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I spent New Years Day with two friends participating in the Isabella Christmas Bird Count. For one glorious year, 1987, the Isabella Christmas Bird Count held the record for the most Gray Jays tallied on the continent, with 154, but the following year the record was snatched away by Canadian counters who spent an inordinate amount of time at a dump just to beat Minnesota out. Isabella usually boasts the coldest temperatures of any count in the state, in part because they count near the end of the official count period, running between the weekend before Christmas and the weekend after New Years, and in part simply because Isabella is a darned cold place.

The fact that Isabella is so cold causes another distinctive feature of its count—the birds on an Isabella Christmas Bird Count are few and far between, making every one of them a treasure. The average number of individual birds seen on the count is only 845—we get at least that many pigeons in the Duluth harbor on our local Christmas Bird Count. But what the Isabella Christmas Bird Count lacks in quantity, it more than makes up for in the quality of the birds found. This year, one of the first birds my group found was a Pileated Woodpecker that called and then flew past close enough to appreciate. THis has been a great year for Pine Siskins, and brightening their flocks even up in Isabella were 11 goldfinches. There were lots of crossbills, though we heard more than we actually saw. One of my favorite winter birds is the quietly friendly Pine Grosbeak, and the total count for the day was 225, making this lovely bird a close second place in the most abundant species category, barely edged out by the 227 chickadees. Of course we have to specify that we’re talking about Black-capped Chickadees, because it’s possible to see two different chickadees in Isabella. This year an even dozen Boreal Chickadees were found, an in that banner year of 1987, an amazing 34 Boreals were tallied.

In 9 out of the 13 years that the Isabella count has existed, Gray Jays have outnumbered Blue Jays. This count continued the trend—my group found 3 Blue Jays first thing in the morning, but that was it for the day. We didn’t see our first Gray Jay until 3 in the afternoon, but ended with 5. The combined total was 48 Gray Jays and 40 Blue Jays. Crows are hard to come by in winter in Isabella—they’ve only been tallied in 2 of 13 years, and the highest crow count ever, in 1987, was a measly 3. Ravens average 45—even they are few and far between in Isabella.

The bird I most wanted to see was a Spruce Grouse. Although hunters and car drivers bag plenty of them in Minnesota, birders have more trouble. The easiest way to add one to a life list is to drive north on Highway 2 out of Two Harbors very early in the morning, timing it to reach the Sand River, 41.5 miles north of Two Harbors, before dawn. For some reason, Spruce Grouse collect along the road, presumably picking up grit, in twilight, but once logging trucks start rolling each day, they retreat to the woods. We didn’t chance upon one until dusk on the bird count, and that one was dead—it had been killed by a car minutes before we arrived, and was still warm. I prefer my birds alive, but this one was at least countable.

At the end of the day, we gathered in a cozy cabin to eat excellent lasagna, swap tales of bull moose seen and birds missed, and discover who had the most exciting birds to report. It was a cold day, with a high temperature of 8, and a colder night with stars glittering in a clear, frozen sky, but the warm feelings of friendship and a good start on our 1995 year lists made us content during the long drive back to Duluth.