Bird watching: A 'Rooseveltian' activity: TRNP units host 113th Audubon Christmas Bird CountWATFORD CITY — Theodore Roosevelt would have been proud to watch birders in his namesake national park turn their binoculars to the sky Saturday in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park for the 113th annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count.
By: Betsy Simon, The Dickinson Press
WATFORD CITY — Theodore Roosevelt would have been proud to watch birders in his namesake national park turn their binoculars to the sky Saturday in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park for the 113th annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count.
“Theodore Roosevelt started birding himself at a very young age, so this is a very Rooseveltian activity,” said Eileen Andes, chief of interpretation at TRNP.
This was the first time the bird census has taken place on a weekend in the North Unit, Andes said.
The Audubon Christmas Bird Count is the longest-running citizen science event in the world, according to the National Audubon Society, and will take place across the country Dec. 14 through Jan. 5.
Delta Willis, senior communications manager for the National Audubon Society in New York, said last year’s count shattered records from previous counts.
A total of 2,248 counts and 63,223 people tallied more than 60 million birds in 2011. Counts took place in all 50 states, all Canadian provinces, plus 99 count circles in Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands.
“For some, it’s a holiday and family tradition. For others, it’s about connecting with nature,” Willis said. “For me, it’s great exercise. We must have walked three miles in Central Park last Sunday and getting up that early to see wildlife reminds me of being on safari.”
In addition to entertainment, Willis said the event provides data on bird population trends.
Willis said anyone who is looking to participate in the bird count should be prepared to walk with an experienced birder who can identify the species, adding that is also smart to layer clothing to stay warm.
“Plus, take a decent pair of binoculars to see what everyone else does, or find your own feather friend,” she said. “Audubon produces a great mobile app which also has the sounds birds make, so you can identify birds by ear. Get ready to meet wonderful, interesting people who’ve done this before, and to rise early. Some groups go out before dawn to include owls in the count.”
In total, the count has located 67 bird species in the South Unit of TRNP and 60 species in the North Unit, according to the park’s press release.
“What you see in the North and South Units is not really different, but sometimes there are surprises in the types of birds people will spot,” Andes said. “What helps is having an experienced birder by your side when you get out in the field, so they can help to identify the birds, by sight or by sound.”
Valerie Naylor, who is the park’s count compiler as well as superintendent, took birding up as a hobby at age 15.
Those years of experience allowed her to quickly zero-in on five chickadees in the trees Saturday while driving past the campgrounds with the car windows down.
“During the count, we spend the day listening for the birds, stopping when we see one, walking when we need to, then getting back in the car and driving until the next find,” Naylor said. “It’s not a scientific count, but it does give a good look at the number of birds in the park from year to year and we never go a year without seeing something.
“It is also a great way to spend a day out in the field, particularly (Saturday) because it is sunny with no wind. You will see more birds in some places, especially near the river, but generally we spot fewer birds in the North Unit than the South Unit, mostly because the North Unit is more open and dry than the South Unit.”
One of best parts of the count, Naylor said, is the unexpected encounters.
“Last week in Medora, we had 18 counters who found 32 species of birds in the South Unit, including a red-belly woodpecker,” she said. “That is only the second red-belly woodpecker sighting on record in Billings County.”
Saturday’s count in the North Unit included areas in and out of the park that were scoured by seven participants who split up into groups and tallied the species they saw in their group’s designated areas.
Birders received a list of more than two dozen species, from American Crow to wild turkey.
There was also space to record other finds they spotted while walking or driving a 7-1/2 mile radius of the North Unit, which has partook in the count for more than 30 years.
Having been a science major in college, Jesse Kolar, Dickinson, who partnered with Naylor for the count, knew his bird types well.
But he said anyone who knows a few species could be a good birder in North Dakota this time of year.
“If you can spot a chickadee or a downy woodpecker, you can almost be an expert birder in North Dakota in the winter,” he said. “And if you want to see wildlife in the park, this is a great way to do it. I know people want to see bison or mountain lions, but those animals are often quick and harder to spot. The birds are everywhere. You just have to look around.”