The Christmas Bird Count is a census of birds conducted every winter by the National Audubon Society. It is the longest-running bird count in the world — 122 years.

Locally, the Prairie Pothole Partners (PPP) partner with Tewaukon National Wildlife Refuge to count birds in Sargent County. We were happy many years ago to be among the grass roots folks that became the supportive Friends group of the refuge.

Any reason to visit Tewaukon is quickly capitalized.

It is good to be a citizen scientist. Bird count data is used for conservation biology and planning, addressing habitat loss, learning about migration timing, documenting environmental change and managing healthy population numbers.

I wore running clothes to run 12 miles around Lake Tewaukon, which has become my route and birding area. Temperatures were in the single digits with 15 mph southeast winds that lowered the wind chill to zero. When running during the winter, it is advisable to wear three thin layers, one that wicks the sweat, one that keeps you warm and another that protects you from wind.

The Prairie Pothole Region is a rich conservation habitat no matter the season. The mosaic of brown bearded cattail sloughs, acres of waving prairie and riparian woods along the lake attract birds of varying species.

A pencil is used with a small note pad because ink will freeze. A backpack with binoculars, bird guide, energy bar and apple juice will make it a comfortable outing.

A spotting scope is situated on a patch of water kept open by an aerator on Lake Tewaukon. When counting large numbers of bird, all one can do is pick a patch like 10 and then multiply it by like patches. There were about 180 Canada geese and 140 mallards.

A bonus was three goldeneyes, stunning with black and white heads and a white spot near its bill. The back is black with white sides.

There are snow drifts in habitat cover but agricultural fields are mostly black. Much of the route is along surrounding gravel roads. In most years, the grit from gravel attracts large flocks of snow buntings. Other bird counters observed them and they are striking — white with rusty brown patches.

It helps to be a hunter who can spot out-of-place colors or movement. A small bird at the edge of a small woods showed a rusty head cap as it flew into the bramble, busting it as an American tree sparrow. Oftentimes birds have a single distinguishing feature that sets it apart.

A blue jay flies across a farm yard. It’s always fun to see colorful wildlife.

It started snowing about halfway through that made it a romantic winter day. It was a day that outdoor painter Terry Redlin of nearby Watertown, South Dakota, would have created memorable scenes during his lifetime.

I walked through and around wooded areas, expecting to see chickadees and nuthatches, but saw none. It seems they like living amongst people in town and some free meals. Only a hairy woodpecker hammered away on a box elder.

Wild turkey tracks followed a road but none were seen. It is allowable to document birds after hearing them. Tracks don’t count.

Eighty-one horned larks were counted. It was a joy watching them forage and fly short distances in open harvested grain fields and weedy areas around the lake. They are the only native larks in North America and have two neat tufts of black hair that look like ears.

I only saw a single ring-necked pheasant, a hen that flew across the road in front of me from a small patch of grass to a large grass field.

I went through the woods north of refuge headquarters like so many times along the Red and Wild Rice rivers in my youth, making my way through fallen branches. I was rewarded by spooking a great horned owl from his perch, carrying a cottontail rabbit in its talons as it flew silently a few feet above me.

I counted 10 species of birds. A bald eagle finished my birding day, flying high above while I checked the north-side Lake Tewaukon point. A great ending on a great day supporting a great American tradition!

Wayne Beyer is director of Wahpeton Parks and Recreation.

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