Winter birding is for the die-hard enthusiasts here in North Dakota. Those who want to find a diamond in the rough, or in this case gem in the snow bank, has to put in their time. The past couple weeks have had some nice weather, but there has been a few weeks that chill you to the bone.
A couple weeks ago, I made my annual trek to Florida to spend a week with my snowbird parents and take in some of the southern bird life. As my plane prepared for departure, the temperature was -21 degrees. I couldn’t help but notice the hardy souls outside working diligently to fulfill their assignments to get the plane in good order for the lift-off. Several personnel were bundled head to toe in wraps to keep warm, only their eyes having a clear path to see what they were accomplishing, and a neon green garment draped over them to show their presence.
With everything in order, the jet roared to life and ascended quickly into the stratosphere revealing a cold snowy barren landscape below. How do birds and animals survive these winters? It is now February: the half way point of most winters. Birds that should have migrated south and didn’t, have probably succumbed to the cold by now. Only the very tough few birds are left to endure the climate we call home.
As you recall, the winter of 2016 harbored five weeks of snow starting Thanksgiving. One snow event after another piled up nearly 5 feet on the landscape, forcing the plows to bury the sidewalks. The entire habitat available to wildlife was buried in ice by the time New Years had passed. Like a switch, the climate immediately went into a drought lasting through the summer. All of nature had to deal with both extremes in a short amount of time.
In the case of pheasants, those hardy birds that did last through the winter had a very hard time nesting. Because of the drought, cover as well as food was scarce, resulting in a 61 percent drop in pheasant populations by the end of last year. Pretty hard to believe, when a decade ago, there were thousands of pheasants to be seen along the roadways.
I couldn’t help but think this past weekend about how few birds are around now. Most winters, there are a fair number of robins and waxwings flying about taking advantage of fruit crops. I walked my favorite winter havens in Mandan and noted a total of seven species, where I might have enjoyed 15 on a better day. A walk through the Mandan Union Cemetery yielded five species, two of which were waterfowl on the river.
So, you have to wonder how birds decide if they can make it through the winter or not as migrants. As birds travel south, they have to make a very important decision of whether or not they will survive here, or keep going to parts further south. We have had Christmas Bird Counts of up to 900 robins in a day. Obviously, something told all those birds this was the place to be. This year, I am hard pressed to find one, so they thankfully moved on to greener pastures. Survival of the fittest and instincts beyond comprehension guide the way. Now, we are left awaiting their return with the warmer sunshine of March.