Having retired from advising all my extra-curricular activities at school, my schedule was finally clear for me this year to go on my first-ever Christmas Bird Count. To be honest, I wasn’t too excited to go out counting ordinary birds. But partnering with Steve made the Willmar CBC an enjoyable experience, and I was surprised at how fun it was to count birds as every single one was important on this day. Steve and I didn’t have any finds that would rock the birding scene, but we did have some nice contributions to the count. Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles are about as boring a bird you can find, but in the winter they are quite rare and by extension, quite exciting.
We also had the only Sharp-shinned Hawk of the day. He was feeder watching too.
Steve and I also had most all of the American Tree Sparrows for the count, a dapper bird that is always a treat to see. Other fun sightings included 20 Ring-necked pheasants in one spot, an all-white Rock Pigeon that looked like a ghost against the white sky, three Bald Eagles, and two Red-bellied Woodpeckers. The CBC’s most notable bird was an American Black Duck which I need for my county list and have chased several times unsuccessfully. The CBC was most notable for what didn’t show up. There were several expected species missing completely, and the overall number of birds was roughly half of what it was last year.
Maybe there would have been more birds if Steve and I had birded until dark. Steve had to go in the early afternoon, and I was itching to head west and out of the count circle. Andrew Halbritter, who found the Willmar Varied Thrush out his bedroom window last month, reported at the CBC morning briefing that he had seen three Snowy Owls on his drive into Willmar just the day before. So late in the afternoon I ventured west to Chippewa County and was able to refind one of the Snowies, a nice male.
As I observed the owl, it flushed and I worried I had gotten to close and spooked it. But then the owl flew toward my direction. It seemed to float as it came closer and closer to the ground and the road. Then magic happened. It touched down for a split second and lifted again with a mouse clutched firmly its large, feathered talons. The owl took its meal to the field to eat it. Before I could even locate the white bird in the white field, it flew back to another pole to resume hunting. It was one of the coolest experiences I’ve had with an owl.
With 120 Snowies now in the state, this year is shaping up to be another record year for SNOW, and I’m hoping this SNOW isn’t my final owl of 2014. Plus we’ll be back in Great Gray country before year’s end. Merry Christmas to you all and may your new year be full of owls and other cool birds.