Bird enthusiasts showed up at Bayview Bar & Grill in Onamia on Friday morning last week to participate in the “First Annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count Mille Lacs South.”

Coordinator of the event and owner/guide of Minnesota Backyard Birds, Judd Brink, instructed the group of birders on how to look for and count the birds in the area.

Brink said the data collected during the count goes into the Audubon database and is used for mapping of winter bird habitat and ranges. “With climate change, we’re seeing birds here longer and not migrating,” said Brink. “That data will make a huge difference with management of birds.”

He added that the bird count is more than a way to just gather data, however. For many, it’s a beloved tradition. “The bird count is for fun and for science and is a great way to explore and enjoy the outdoors,” Brink said.

Participants were broken up into groups and assigned an area within the count circle that included the communities of Isle, Wahkon, Onamia and Vineland along with birding hot-spots such as Mille Lacs Kathio State Park, Father Hennepin State Park, the Mille Lacs WMA, and Izatys Resort.

Brinks said of the history behind the bird count, “The history goes way back to 1900, and prior to that, people got together over the holidays to shoot birds for fun. After many years of bird decline, they decided to count the birds. This started back in 1900, and today marks the 120th season of the Christmas Bird Count.” This was the first annual for the southern Mille Lacs Lake area.

Father Hennepin Assistant Manager Willow Shields was a participant and also a lifelong birder. “This fits well into my hobbies and my profession, and I’m making some new friends here,” she said of why she chose to come.

Another participant, Herb Dingmann, of St. Cloud, said, “I do a lot of these Christmas bird counts, and this would be a chance to go to a new area I haven’t been to before.”

Patti Packer, of Wahkon, shared her reasoning for participating, “I live in the area and what a great thing to promote the area. The first annual, [is something I] wanted to be a part of. I’m not a birder, but I’m learning a lot from all these experts.”

Steve Dubbs, chair of the Lake Mille Lacs Scenic Byway committee, said the bird count is part of a bigger effort of the byway to promote the Mille Lacs area and that the area is already recognized as a birding hot spot, so the event was a good fit. “We would like to do a master list of birding hot spots in the area and partner with Audubon specialists, the DNR, the Mille Lacs Band DNR, MnDOT, and the Fish & Wildlife Service.

Brink gave a summary of the event, stating that 29 different species of birds were counted with about 933 total number of birds that were detected during the count.

Among the birds counted were the European starling, black-capped chickadee, house sparrows, blue jays, American crows, rock pigeons, wild turkeys, woodpeckers, cardinals, goldfinches, bald eagles, nuthatches, common ravens, mourning doves, hawks, and more. A yellow-bellied sapsucker was also spotted, which Brink noted typically migrates further south.

The event was sponsored by the Lake Mille Lacs Scenic Byway and coordinated and led by local bird expert Judd Brink.

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