Keeping track of the birds
By Brian Gehring
Frank Chapman isn’t what one might call a household name, but in the world of birding, he’s a bona fide hall of famer.
Back around the turn of the 20th century, one Christmas tradition for many, in addition to cooking the Christmas goose, was gathering after a meal for “side hunts.”
The goal of the side hunts was to kill as many feathered or furred critters as they could.
It was Chapman, an ornithologist and officer with the Audubon Society, who came up with the idea to turn those hunts into counts.
Since Christmas Day 1900, it’s been a holiday tradition now in its 114th year.
North Dakota birders long have been a part of that tradition — a three-week period that extends through Jan. 5.
On Dec. 22, a hardy bunch of birders with the Bismarck-Mandan Bird Club braved 5-below-zero temperatures to complete their duly appointed rounds in and around Bismarck-Mandan.
Clark Talkington, a retired music teacher from Mandan, is kind of the elder statesman of the group and widely regarded as the club’s unofficial historian.
Corey Ellingson, president of the bird club, said Talkington postponed plans to leave the state for the Christmas holiday by a day so he could participate in this year’s count.
The counts work like this: Birders split off into groups and cover a predetermined route or area within a 15-mile radius of a central point, in this case, the state Capitol.
In their area, birders document the different species seen — and heard — in an allotted time period.
In Talkington’s case, his area is along the Missouri River. Ellingson said specifically, Talkington surveys inside the fences of the Mandan Tesoro Refinery, where open ponds and lagoons this time of the year harbor a multitude of different types of birds.
“Clark is the only person allowed inside the fences at the refinery,” Ellingson said. “That tells you something about how respected he is.”
Talkington downplayed that, saying successful birding is kind of like being in the real estate business – it’s all about location.
“If you see birds, you’re probably in a good area,” he said.
He said the CBC in the Bismarck area got its start in 1918, when seven species were tallied. But it wasn’t until 1948 that the count became an annual event.
Nationally, the CBC is the longest-running volunteer citizen survey. Not only are the different species counted, but the number seen, the time of day and location.
Stacy Adolf-Whipp of Courtenay and Kevin Down of Bismarck are two of the volunteers who took part in this year’s CBC.
Adolf-Whipp said she has been involved with the count since the late ‘90s. For Down, it’s only been the past few years.
“I have always been interested in birding,” he said. Down said it doesn’t matter much if it’s a rare bird or not — in fact, he said he doesn’t keep track with a life list like many birders.
But he did manage to spot a whooping crane near Crosby a couple of years ago. “There are less than 500, so that’s pretty rare,” he said.
Adolf-Whipp estimates she has upward of 300 species represented on her life list.
Unquestionably, the piping plover is her favorite; she said she did her master’s degree thesis on the bird.
“They have an interesting biology and a neat call … and they’re threatened,” she said. “They’ve always been my favorite.”
She said more than the chance to spot a rare bird, she’s interested in birding in more exotic locales like Costa Rica or perhaps Alaska.
For birders, it’s about being in the right place at the right time.
Ellingson said some groups had a quiet count while others hit the jackpot. One sighting was a tundra swan, first for the Bismarck CBC.
Another first this year was the ringneck duck and highs for eastern screech owls, 10, and Eurasian collared doves, 72.
Ellingson, Adolf-Whipp and Down participated in the CBC at Theodore Roosevelt National Park the day before the Bismarck-Mandan count.
While routes are predetermined, there is some room for flexibility. On a couple of occasions on their run south of Mandan, the group pulled into people’s yards and asked if they could bump around.
And, there were a few curious onlookers who pulled their vehicles over to asked if the birders had car trouble or were lost.
Even if they may not actively participate, Ellingson said members of the public often help in the CBC.
He said a female northern cardinal was counted near a Highland Acres residence after a homeowner flagged down a count participant who happened to stop nearby.
“Last year was a record high of 60 species,” Ellingson said.
“This year getting 49 was pretty good considering a lot of counts are on the low side.”