Christmas Bird Count season underway across the region

Count week has wrapped up for this year’s Grand Forks Christmas Bird Count. The actual count was held Sunday, but participants could observe and record birds on their own through Wednesday.

This marks the 115th year for the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, which began Sunday and continues through Jan. 5.

Dave Lambeth of Grand Forks compiles the results from the annual Grand Forks Christmas Bird Count.

Dave Lambeth of the Grand Cities Bird Club, who compiles info for the Grand Forks count, wrote in a posting on the club’s listserv that he observed sharptails dancing on a lek near Grand Forks on Wednesday morning when the temperature was 0 degrees. Although spring mating season is a long ways off, Lambeth said it’s not unusual for sharptails to be dancing on leks this time of year.

While watching the grouse, Lambeth said he saw a prairie chicken join the group. That’s bad, he said, because it increases the risk of the chickens cross-breeding with sharptails, in turn depleting the area’s remaining population of prairie chickens.

Also of note, Lambeth in his post said he observed a common raven at the west end of the extension of 32nd Avenue South. Other species Lambeth saw Wednesday included a snowy owl, a northern shrike (which Lambeth says was in “hot pursuit” of a red-winged blackbird) and about 65 cedar waxwings in front of the Grand Forks Post Office.

In his final report on this year’s count, Lambeth noted that observers counted 45 species, along with one race (Oregon junco) on count day, along with seven additional species during the count week that ended Wednesday for a total of 52 species and 4,590 individual birds.

According to Lambeth, the most unusual species were three cackling geese, two northern pintails, one ruddy duck, a northern goshawk, three barred owls and five varied thrush. The most abundant species was the rock pigeon (1,112), followed by Canada geese (902), European starling (436), house sparrow (403), black-capped chickadee (265), dark-eyed junco (256) and American crow (241). Lambeth reported the number of house sparrows was the lowest in 40 years and far below the high of 7,334 tallied in 1989.

Meanwhile, several counts are scheduled or underway across the region, including today’s count at Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge northeast of Thief River Falls, Friday’s count at Icelandic State Park near Cavalier, N.D., and Saturday counts in Fargo-Moorhead, Bemidji and Crookston.

Nearly 2,400 “count circles” are planned this year across North America, along with parts of Central and South America, Bermuda, the West Indies and Pacific islands. During the counts, participants tally every individual bird and species they see within the count circle’s 15-mile radius.

Otters showing up on the Red in GF

Daniel Johnson of Grand Forks sent me a photo and a video clip of river otters he has been watching from the walking bridge that crosses the Red River downstream from the Riverside Dam rapids.

Daniel Johnson of Grand Forks shared this photo of a river otter he photographed in late November along the Red River near Riverside Dam rapids in Grand Forks.

He described the encounters in an email as follows:

“The day before Thanksgiving, I was on my normal afternoon walk and as I started across the north end pedestrian bridge from the EGF side I happened to look down on the small island of ice underneath the bridge.  I thought I saw a black lab sitting in the middle of the ice eating something.  That’s what it looked like from above.  I whistled at it and it looked up and I realized from the narrow face and light colored hair on its lower mouth area it was an otter.

“It ran into the water and I watched it dive in the brown water. I stepped back and hid for a bit and it came back up on the edge of the ice looking for me. I got a few pictures and some video but it was pretty concerned about me.  This was at 4:30 p.m. the afternoon before Thanksgiving. I walked the same route the next two days and saw it again. On Sunday afternoon (Nov. 30), I had my binoculars with and watched four of them playing in the Red, about 200 to 300 yards north of the bridge, behind the old Pillsbury plant.”

This past Thursday afternoon,Johnson said he saw another otter, this time sitting on the ice along the edge of the river about 30 feet below the dam and upstream from the walking bridge. The otter was sitting on the ice eating what appeared to be a fish, Johnson writes.

“It saw me and darted around for a bit and went swimming,” Johnson said. “Fun to watch.”

I’ve also seen otters along the Red River, and they are indeed fun to watch. UND Professor Emeritus of Biology Robert Seabloom, in his book, “The Mammals of North Dakota,” writes that river otters never were abundant in North Dakota but historically were present in all of the state’s major streams. Numbers declined to the point where there were only two reports of otter sightings in the early 1960s, Seabloom writes, but river otters in recent years have become more abundant.

“There have been numerous reports of river otters from the Red, Sheyenne, Missouri and Souris rivers and nearby wetlands,” Seabloom writes in his book. “Of these, most have been since the year 2000.”

Ice fishing in full swing across the region

If an ice fishing season that’s in full swing by Dec. 1 seems early, you’re right.

It is.

“This is by far the earliest best freeze-up I can remember,” longtime Devils Lake fishing guide and outdoor TV host Jason Mitchell said earlier today. He said ice in the Devils Lake region varies from more than 10 inches on shallow bays and areas such as Pelican Lake and Lake Irvine to 4 or 5 inches on the main lake.

He said he hasn’t heard any reports of anglers venturing out on widespread hunts for perch, but walleye fishing has been great. Mitchell says he’s had nights where every walleye he marked on his electronics has bit.

On Upper Red Lake, West Wind Resort in Waskish, Minn., posted a Facebook report this morning that it is allowing half-ton pickups out to the first break line, where there’s a consistent 12 to 14 inches of ice atop 8 to 10 feet of water. There’s less ice beyond that, the resort post indicates, so vehicles are advised to stay near the road. The best walleye action is in 8 to 10 feet of water anyway, the resort said, so there’s no need to venture any farther.

Ice fishing also is off to an early start on Lake of the Woods. Deanna Painovich of Zippel Bay Resort north of Williams, Minn., said the bay already has 12 inches to 14½ inches of ice while the main lake as of Saturday had 6 to 12 inches.

The resort was scheduled to shuttle its first group of winter anglers onto the ice this afternoon, she said. The ice is rough in places, Painovich said, but early reports indicate good water clarity and good fishing.

Farther east, the Lake of the Woods Tourism Bureau shared a report from Morris Point Resort, where there’s about 10 inches of ice, and the resort’s ice road is open to ATVs and portables.

Painovich says this is earliest start to winter fishing she can remember in quite some time.

“It’s been a lot of years ago, but I know we were out right after Thanksgiving one year,” she said. “It’s amazing to be out the first of December, after all the late years we’ve had.”

Anglers planning to venture north to tackle the big “greenback” walleyes on Lake Winnipeg would do well to wait until there’s more snow to fill in the rough ice that’s piled in along the south shore, said winter fishing guide Jason Hamilton of Jason Hamilton Outdoors.

“Frozen but ultra rough — need snow,” said Hamilton, who’s headed to the Twin Cities on Friday for the annual St. Paul Ice Show extravaganza at the St. Paul RiverCentre.

He said a road trip to the Twin Cities is a better option than ice fishing for now.

“I don’t even want to go out on the ice it’s so bad,” he said.