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Bismarck-Mandan Christmas Bird Count 2022

Dec 18, 2022

Christmas Bird Counts take place all across the country during December and January. They’re scheduled for each area in advance by the area’s organizer. For the Bismarck-Mandan area, the weather this time of year can be more chaotic than usual. Such was the case this year where the Great December Blizzard of 2022 had just finished up in time for today’s bird count. The post blizzard weather was cold with a slight breeze. Additionally, the World Cup final was also held today in the much sunnier Qatar. The combination of weather and world events made it an easy choice to hunker down for the morning.

Adventuress and I set off after lunch in the trusty XTerra for Fort Abraham Lincoln. This is our usual CBC initial destination, but this year the added challenge was road access. The park personnel had the main road cleared from the highway to the Visitor’s Center parking lot, but not much else yet. The road to the campground had drifts in spots. We could get down to the campground but getting back out would have been a problem. We did a lap walking around the parking lot and took the trail to the Mandan village. Faint bird calls could be heard nearby, but with no way to get to them. With limited access and decaying weather, it looked like we were going to get skunked in the park.

We slowly rolled out, attentive for any signs of any type of bird. Finally, we saw flashes of movement in the nearby tree line. A flock of European Starlings flitted about before settling in a line of bushes. A Yellow-Shafted Flicker popped out of the trees and landed on another tree across the road. A flock of Canada Geese came up off the river, either looking for food or getting away from a predator. Shortly, a Bald Eagle flew by, likely the cause of the geese getting up. Success!

As we went by the horse stable, I saw movement in the tall grass stick up out of the snow. Small birds were feeding in the grass, occasionally jumping up. Every few minutes, the entire flock would get up and make a small loop around the patch of grass before landing in roughly the same area. Adveturess guessed that they were Horned Larks, though she didn’t have a good view of them from the passenger seat. Getting out my binoculars, I could see that they were about the right size for larks, but the coloration wasn’t right. I got a decent look through the spotting scope and confirmed they likely weren’t larks. Snow Buntings, perhaps?

A host of equipment failures followed as I tried to get a decent photo of these birds. They didn’t move around that much when they were on the ground, which helped. The old Sony had trouble focusing on them thanks to the grass and the snow. I managed to take a number of blurry pictures, and a couple almost decent ones. Trying to roto-scope throught the spotting scope proved to be a nearly impossible challenge of getting everything lined up and in focus. I knew I had a phone mount for the scope, but couldn’t remember where exactly it was at. A quick download of one of the best photos gave a strong indication that the birds were buntings. If we had made more birding drives the previous weeks, we might have avoided these issues but time never seemed to be on our side this year.

After leaving the park, we tried going to a couple other nearby areas where we had seen activity in previous outings. The weather and traffic were not helping us, unfortunately. The snow was starting to come down and people were anxious to get out and about after being cooped up by the blizzard. We headed back to town and picked up a pizza for dinner. Adventuress would later hear from the other birders that buntings had been spotted north of Bismarck recently, so our hunch may prove correct.