The Fort Frances circle of the 121st Christmas Bird Count performed their count on Saturday December 19th. Seven field teams and six feeder watchers made up eighteen participants. Conditions were perfect, with a cool -23C calm and sunny morning with fresh snow having fallen the day before to pique the birds’ appetites for feeder food. With recent warmer than normal weather, moving water still open and thin snow cover we had some late or reluctant migrants.
The field team with highest species diversity (21) was Bob Saunders and Randall Spritt. The feeder watcher with the highest number of unusual species (3) was Susan Taylor, who saw Dark-eyed Juncoes, White-throated Sparrows and a Red-bellied Woodpecker. The tough times mention should go to Henry Miller and Amanda Jacobs, both of whom had the lonely and difficult task of splitting up the huge Burriss area to birdwatch alone due to our social distancing rules. Thank you also to field teams: Tom and Penny Shumaker, Vance and Sallee Dick, Henry Van Ael, lka Milne Ahlan Johansen and Mike Hammond; and feeder watchers: George and Diane Glowasky, Penny and John Pierce, Leanne Donaldson.
Our totals were 28 species and 1627 individuals. Black-capped Chickadees were very close (331) to their all-time high (334) recorded twenty two years ago. A number of occasionally seen species are likely related to the recent warm weather: Mallard, Dark-eyed Junco and White-throated Sparrow. A frustrating miss was the Pileated Woodpecker. As they visit yards with other species but don’t necessarily stay long near feeders, it is easy for field teams to miss them. This is the 4th time we’ve missed them in our 26 years. Another kind of miss we experience often is overlooking large flocks. Although we recorded some Snow Buntings on count day none were recorded in town, yet the next day a flock of 300 were seen in the Robert Moore School neighbourhood. We hope to have more town boots on the ground and feeder watchers in coming years to avoid this phenomenon.
The two noteworthy species were Red-bellied Woodpecker and White-winged Crossbills. The Red-bellied Woodpecker is a beautiful medium sized woodpecker very different in appearance and call notes from our native species. A year round resident to the eastern half of the US with a northward limit typically around Minneapolis, this species is slowly expanding its range northward. If you live just north of downtown Fort Frances perhaps you can tempt this visitor with some tasty suet.
12 White-winged Crossbills are the new high count, up from a previous high of 6 recorded in 2018. These nomadic cone specialists have now been recorded just 3 times in our 26 years. Both species of crossbills (we also may see Red Crossbills) are anticipated to be in higher numbers in our area this winter as we appear to have a bumper crop of White Spruce cones. If you see crossbills feeding and staying in an area for a day or two, or if you see a male singing from a prominent perch, it is possible they are setting up to nest. Keep an eye on spruce stands. In winters of good cone production crossbills may nest in January-February. In a few weeks the 2021-2025 Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas survey starts up, and participating local birders will be very grateful if you let us know about crossbills showing signs of starting a family. You can connect with the Rainy River Valley Field Naturalists on our webpage rrvfn.org.