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Volunteers observe 48 different species in Willmar bird count

Despite another pandemic year, the volunteers for the Willmar Area Christmas Bird Count kept a 60-year tradition of citizen-science. This year's sightings included a golden eagle and more trumpeter swans than ever before.

A trumpeter swan takes flight at Green Lake near Spicer
A trumpeter swan runs along the frozen surface of Green Lake near Spicer before taking flight Friday, Jan. 14, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune
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WILLMAR — A second pandemic year did not stop the volunteers who make possible the Willmar Area Christmas Bird Count from continuing this important, citizen-science work.

Thirty volunteers took part in the Dec. 18, 2021, count in the Willmar area, with 16 taking to the field and 20 watching their bird feeders, according to a report on the 2021 count by organizers Joel Halbritter and Joel Schmidt. Five of the volunteers were participating for the first time.

This year’s count marked the 60th anniversary of the Willmar Area Bird Count and the 122nd for the National Audubon Society in the nation.

The local volunteers observed 48 different species of birds, which is above average. They counted 6,819 individual birds.

Notably, the volunteers recorded 313 trumpeter swans. This is only the fifth time the local volunteers have recorded trumpeter swans during the count, and this is the highest number ever. The previous high count was 29, the organizers reported.

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The majority of the trumpeter swans were seen near the Olde Mill Inn where the Middle Fork of the Crow River reaches Green Lake, but they were also observed at a few other locations in the count area in smaller numbers.

"This follows increased observations of nesting pairs in our county and groups of young seen in the summer months," stated the organizers.

One new species was observed: a golden eagle. The organizers said this new species is under review by the state committee as to whether or not to be accepted. If so, it would bring the total number of species recorded in the Willmar Area Christmas Bird Count to 115 during its history.

The golden eagle was spotted by Joel Schmidt, and he has submitted information needed for its acceptance.

Golden eagles do not breed in Minnesota, but they are sometimes observed as migratory birds in the winter, according to the website of the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minnesota. Area birders have spotted golden eagles in the area prior to this year’s count, but it is very rare, maybe something that occurs once every four or five years, noted Joel Halbritter.

The birders also spotted a Townsend's solitaire. This is only the second time this species of thrush has been spotted in the count, the organizers stated.

The count followed a cold snap, but there were still spots with open water. The open water still held lots of Canada geese, making them the most numerous birds counted, a total of 3,507.

In terms of numbers, the geese were followed by trumpeter swans, house sparrows (277), house finches (248) and goldfinches (124).

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As always, the birders were rewarded for their work with the opportunity to observe a wide range of birds, including some of the most majestic. The volunteers observed 11 bald eagles, 52 wild turkeys, 11 red-tail hawks and seven rough-legged hawks. They tallied 52 ring-necked pheasants.

Many of the birds spotted were woodland birds, which fits with the habitat of the area, the organizers said.

To make it all possible, the volunteers walked 18.65 miles and drove 469 miles on the road to conduct the count. The work represented an aggregate of 96.75 hours.

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.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s volunteers did not gather for the morning organizational meeting or for a mid-morning coffee and hot chocolate break at the Ardys and Dave Lais residence. Twelve volunteers, all vaccinated, were able to have an evening meal at the Calvary Lutheran Church.

The organizers extended their thanks to all who participated. “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,” they stated.

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoors reporter for the West Central Tribune.
He has been a reporter with the West Central Tribune since 1993.

Cherveny can be reached via email at tcherveny@wctrib.com or by phone at 320-214-4335.
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