Pandemic doesn't stop Willmar Area bird count tradition

The 2020 Willmar Area Christmas Bird Count proved a success, despite the restrictions forced on volunteers by the COVID-19 pandemic. The volunteers turned out in good numbers, and so did the birds with 51 species counted.

It's the opportunity to observe red-tail hawks and other birds in scenes like this that motivates birders. Despite restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, volunteers kept a 59 year tradition in place by participating in a successful Willmar Area Christmas Bird Count. Photo by Gene Stukel

WILLMAR — Through sub-zero temperatures and inclement weather, and now a pandemic, volunteers who make possible the Willmar Area Christmas Bird Count have continued to come through in a big way.

A good turn out of volunteers made possible a 2020 count showing above average numbers of birds in the area. “It is a tribute to each and every one of you that we are able to find so many species and cover a large area so thoroughly,” wrote organizers Joel Halbritter and Joel Schmidt in reporting the results of the count to participants.

The volunteers counted 51 species during the count, which was conducted on Dec. 19, 2020. This is well above average, they pointed out, and came as a surprise to many participants.

Volunteers spotted two new species, a yellow-rumped warbler and a hoary redpoll. It brings to 114 the number of species observed during the annual Willmar area count.

The volunteers counted 7,412 individual birds.


This was the 59th annual count conducted in the Willmar area. It was the 121st year of the national count overseen by the National Audubon Society.

The Audubon Society champions the annual count as the nation’s longest running community science bird project. It provides an annual snapshot of bird populations across the county, helping scientists identify changes and trends.

The Willmar organizers reported that 27 volunteers participated in this year’s count, which is slightly above last year and consistent with prior years. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s count was conducted without benefit of two long standing traditions. Ardys and Dave Lais usually offer the volunteers a mid-morning break to warm up and enjoy hot chocolate and treats at their home. In the evening, the volunteers would gather at the Calvary Lutheran Church in Willmar for fellowship, a meal and the opportunity to share notes and stories from the field.

Of this year’s participants, 14 took to the field and others watched feeders. The volunteers trekked 14.5 miles and put in 610 miles on the road, committing an aggregate of 61.9 hours collecting information about the birds found in our area, the organizers reported.

There was open water on area lakes when the count was held, and that likely led to increased numbers of individuals and waterfowl species observed this year, Halbritter and Schmidt pointed out. The volunteers tallied 4,208 Canada geese, or more than one-half the individual total. They also spotted trumpeter swans, mallards, one hooded and three common mergansers among the waterfowl still in the area.

A lack of snow cover may have limited the number of species overall that were observed, since the birds were not congregating by roadsides, the organizers noted.


All the same, the volunteers were rewarded with a wide variety of birds. This year’s count includes observations of red-tailed hawks, American eagles, red-billed, downy and pileated woodpeckers, as well as wild turkeys and ring-necked pheasants.

Thanks to the volunteers, the organizers termed the 2020 Christmas Bird Count a success and extended their thanks to those who participate. “Be on the lookout for those unusual bird finds throughout the year,” they concluded. “Continue to seek out a new face to recruit and join us for next year’s Willmar Area Christmas Bird Count.”

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