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Christmas bird counts set for Detroit Lakes, Tamarac

Every year since 1900, the National Audubon Society has mobilized thousands of volunteers in communities across the Western Hemisphere for its annual Christmas Bird Count — and since 1990, Detroit Lakes has been one of those communities. Both the Detroit Lakes community and nearby Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge are hosting counts this year, on Dec. 16 and 21, respectively.

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Evening grosbeaks are normally not a common sight during the Detroit Lakes Christmas Bird Count, but organizer Nancy Henke says that a recent irruption of the species in the lakes area has birders hoping they will be spotted at both the local and Tamarac counts, set for Dec. 16 and 21, respectively. (Submitted photo)

French hens, turtle doves and partridges in pear trees may feature prominently in "The 12 Days of Christmas," but for the Christmas Bird Count in Detroit Lakes, it's all about grosbeaks, prairie chickens and owls in pine trees.

The Audubon Christmas Bird Count has been a Detroit Lakes holiday tradition since local birder Betsy Beneke established the first one in 1990. Both the city and nearby Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge are hosting counts this year, with the 31st local event taking place Wednesday, Dec. 16, and the Tamarac count taking place five days later, on Monday, Dec. 21.

"Each count lasts 24 hours, from midnight to midnight," says Nancy Henke, who is one of the coordinators for the Detroit Lakes count. "We divide the area up into zones, and teams of volunteers go out and drive around those zones — including all the little back roads — and writing down every bird they see."

Those teams will look a little different than in previous years, Henke said, due to COVID-19 safety concerns.

"Carpooling is discouraged, and we won't be gathering anywhere, either before or after the count," she said. The traditional post-count potluck dinner at the Henkes' home is also out for this year, she added.


But one benefit of the pandemic, Henke said, is that there will hopefully be more people available to do the counts, as many of them are working from home or not working at all during the pandemic shutdown.

The count encompasses all birds seen and heard within a 7-mile radius of a central point on the map: In Detroit Lakes, that center point is the local airport, while at Tamarac, the focal point is the Visitor Center (even though the center itself is not currently open to the public).

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This map shows the seven-mile zone where birds are counted for the Detroit Lakes Christmas Bird Count, which takes place on Wednesday, Dec. 16. The 24-hour event has been a local holiday tradition every December since 1990. (Submitted graphic)

So anyone living within that radius can use their front or back yard as a bird counting site, while those living outside of it will need to drive, hike, bike or otherwise travel to one of the designated counting zones in order to participate.

"There's no set amount of time you need to do it," Henke said. "Just keep track of the hours you spent, and where the birds were sighted.

"Since these are workdays for many of you, a half hour at breakfast time and after work still helps tremendously, especially if you happen to find that rare bird!" added Henke in a letter that was emailed out to volunteers late this past week.

"Our Count Day record is 43 species," Henke said. "Last year, we were lucky enough to find a common goldeneye, ruffed grouse, northern shrikes, great horned and barred owls, northern flicker, black-billed magpies, American robins, cedar waxwings and snow buntings among our total of 38 species for the day."


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Snow buntings were among the 38 species of birds spotted during last year's Christmas Bird Count in Detroit Lakes. This year's count is set for Wednesday, Dec. 16. There will also be a count at Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge on Monday, Dec. 21. (Submitted photo)

One bird that is currently experiencing a local irruption (i.e., sudden increase in numbers) is the evening grosbeak .

"Linda Schumann at Rainbow Resort (near Waubun) has had evening grosbeaks at her feeders every day for the past two weeks," said Henke, noting that Schumann hadn't previously seen any of these birds at the resort since 2014. "We are really hoping to find them in both of the Christmas Bird Counts."

Rare sightings should be clearly documented, either with a photo or a detailed, written description, she added. "The state overseer looks at our counts, and if we put down that we saw something very unusual they would ask for identification, either a detailed description or a photo — and a photo is always better to prove that we saw something."

Unusual birds sighted anytime during Count Week, Dec. 13-19, can be counted, Henke said, as can any birds heard (but not seen) during the night, so long as their species can be clearly identified by sound alone.

To sign up, contact Henke at 218-234-5680 or wchenke1@gmail.com for the Detroit Lakes count this Wednesday, and Steve Midthune at 507-458-0317 or smidthune@loretel.net for the Tamarac count on Dec. 21.


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