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Help count birds next month

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The Rainy River Valley Field Naturalists and community volunteers will take part in the annual Christmas bird count on Saturday, Dec. 16 this year.

Organized by the Audubon Society, some 72,000 volunteer bird counters in more than 2,500 locations across the Western Hemisphere will participate.

The count uses the power of volunteers to track the health of bird populations at a scale scientists never could accomplish alone.

Data compiled in Fort Frances will contribute to a vast citizen science network that continues a tradition stretching back 118 years.

Local birdwatchers have been participating in this count for 23-straight years. Our best year for total number of birds so far was in 1998, when we counted more than 3,000.

Birders usually care more about variety than raw numbers, so the years in which we encounter interesting species are the exciting ones.

The best conditions for variety are when we have an incursion of owls, as well as when warmer-than-average weather keeps hawks, ducks, and migratory songbirds hanging around.

But an early winter like we're having this year also can lead to an exciting count if people start their feeders early.

Deep snow in the bush and cold days push birds to visit backyard feeders, where they are much easier to see on count day.

The frustrating species are the ones that we know are present but seem to vanish on count day, such as Spruce Grouse, Sharp-tailed Grouse, and Northern Shrike, for instance.

Birds that move around in one big flock looking for a fruit tree, like the Bohemian Waxwings, can be difficult to pin down. Snow Buntings, Purple Finches, Dark-eyed Junco, and Pine Siskins sometimes are missed, as well.

Fortunately, our small but dedicated core of birders know the area well and often will “pre-bird” (casing out hot spots and good feeders before the count) looking for the way to beat our record.

Our best year so far was 2006, with 2015 a close second. That year, we found 35 species.

Four rare winter birds—Carolina Wren, Robin, Cardinal, and Grackle—turned up while open water allowed Canada Geese, Scaups, Mallards, Goldeneyes, and Mergansers to stick around.

Birders of all ages are welcome to join this fun project. Don't let inexperience chase you away.

The best way to learn birding is to jump in and try, and our teams do much better with more eyes and ears.

Our circle is 15 miles in diameter, and takes in the town of Fort Frances, Couchiching, Miscampbell, Burriss, Devlin, and Alberton.

Volunteers break the circle up into sections, counting every bird they see.

Because we have a large area with not many people, most of our field counters will drive in a small team, cruise their route, and stop to visit the best bird spots in their section.

Volunteers who live within the circle also can choose to be feeder-watchers on count day (feeder-watchers stay cozy at home while identifying the birds that visit their feeders on count day).

At the end of the day, we host a potluck/count meeting, where we share the day's stories and collect the data to send to the Audubon Society.

To join the count, contact Ilka Milne at boghaunter@yahoo.ca or visit the Rainy River Valley Field Naturalists Facebook group and leave a message.

There is no fee to participate, and the count is open to people of all skill levels.

A volunteer doesn't need to be an expert. Every team needs eyes, ears, drivers, tally people, and bird book surfers.

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