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January 1, 2001: We hear birds singing and see activity in fir trees as we drive slowly past a farm bordering the Whitewater Wildlife Management Area (WMA). Dana Gardner and I are participating in the Whitewater Christmas Bird Count (CBC) and we need to identify these birds, so I pull my car to the side of the road and back up.
CBC's take place every year all across the Americas. Over 45,000 people participate each year in this census of winter bird populations. The first CBC's took place Christmas day 1900 at the suggestion of ornithologist Frank Chapman who asked people to count birds instead of shooting them for specimens, as was the current practice
Each count lasts one day and must occur between mid-December and mid-January. Participants record numbers and species of birds within a fifteen-mile radius of a central location. Our base today is the Whitewater State Park Visitor Center, where we met early this morning to pick up our assigned routes. Carol Schumacher, Winona, has organized this count for the past five years. Participants have come from all over Southeast Minnesota.
Now, after looking for over an hour, Dana and I have only seen crows and blue jays--not an auspicious beginning. As I back up to look at the birds in the fir trees, I feel my car sinking into snow at the edge of the road; I pull forward and sink deeper, then backward again and deeper yet. Dana tries to push me out with no success. He thinks we will have to call a tow truck, but I say he has been living away from Minnesota too long and doesn't remember the helpfulness of area farmers.
We cross the road to the farmhouse and knock on the door. A young boy answers and says he will ask his dad to help us. Soon a sleepy farmer comes into the kitchen where we are waiting. He says he will pull us out and heads to his barn. As Dana and I walk back to the car, we cheerfully realize we now have a good story to tell. This reminds me of author Moritz Thomsenís words in "The Saddest Pleasure":
I will be like a traveler who, toward the end of his journey begins to carry a camera and finds his vision detoured and distorted, reality now seen as something that can be arranged or lighted for the camera's eye.
The farmer soon comes out of his barn on a tractor. Does he think we were stupid to have driven into the ditch? Is he suspicious of our intentions? He is friendly enough, but not talkative. He hooks a chain to my car and has us out of the ditch in minutes. We try to pay him, but
he won't take our money.
Before leaving the farm, we check out the birds we went into the ditch for and see they are only a huge flock of starlings. We continue on our way, having only lost half an hour of birding time.
Now our luck turns. We quickly find three light phase red-tailed hawks, three woodpecker species, and some Lapland longspurs. By the time we buy our lunch at the Altura deli and join the others back at the Visitor Center, we have seen a respectable sixteen species.
While sitting by the fireplace eating our lunches and watching feeder birds, we all share our sightings, including among others a golden eagle, northern shrike, brown creeper, Townsend's Solitaire and snow buntings. The feeders are busy now with woodpeckers, jays, chickadees, finches, juncos, tree sparrows and one out-of-season chipping sparrow.
Carol decides to spend the afternoon with Dana and me. We look for the northern shrike, which Dana wants to see, but it is nowhere in sight. When Dana thinks he sees a bluebird, I cautiously back up to get a better look. The bird is a robin. While looking at it, we discover a red-shouldered hawk perched low in a tree just behind us--an especially good find.
We investigate all the side roads. One turns out to be only a snowmobile trail. When my car begins to break through into the underlying soft snow, Carol and Dana have to push me out.
At 4:00 p.m., we return to the Visitor Center. It's time to turn in our counts and go home. I decide not to tell my husband about driving into the ditch. I will let him read about it here instead.
Illistration by Dana Gardner.