The mild December weather was a blessing and a handicap when area birders joined forces to conduct the annual Christmas Bird Count, sponsored by the National Audubon Society, in Lake County last week.
"The weather was nice, so it made for a pleasant day for counting birds," said John Bame, district park manager with the state Department of Game, Fish and Parks.
The Christmas Bird Count has been held annually since 1901 and is conducted by volunteers.
"It's done across the country, so you have a nice basis of comparison over time. It gets a lot of people interested in what's out there," said Jeff Palmer, professor of mathematics at Dakota State University and local compiler.
Local organizers can choose any date between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5 to conduct the count. In Lake County, it's usually done early because the weather tends to get colder toward the end of the year. However, this year's mild weather was a bit of a handicap when it comes to counting birds.
"It's harder to find birds when it's nice like this because things are a lot more spread out," Palmer said. Among those difficult to find were the horned lark, snow bunting and Lapland longspur.
However, the mild weather has resulted in an unusual number of snow geese in the area. That was the most notable observation made this year. Palmer still doesn't have all of the numbers from those who counted birds but doesn't expect any other unusual results.
"There's nothing that I had to drop what I was doing and go see this bird," he said.
A birder since grade school, he would drop everything to see a rare bird. He makes birding trips around the country, including two to Alaska and numerous trips to Arizona. When asked if he's seen anything remarkable, his first response is simply, "Oh! Gosh!"
Given time to collect his thoughts, he said that within the state of South Dakota, he's most excited about the five firsts he put on record: Pacific loon, harlequin duck, Arctic tern, purple gallinule and Virginia's warbler.
"Nobody had ever documented those species in South Dakota before," he said.
Documentation includes either a photograph or confirmation by other birders. Without that confirmation, it's considered a hypothetical sighting.
Palmer noted that being a birder has been a boon during the COVID-19 pandemic. It's a hobby that can be enjoyed without risking exposure to the coronavirus.
While winter is not an ideal time to start birding -- spring is better -- Lake Herman State Park is an ideal location for those who are interested in cultivating birdwatching as a hobby, according to Palmer.
"The best way to get started is to get a pair of binoculars and get a field guide for birds," he said. "Take a little walk and see what you can see."
He said that some people approach it as a social activity and go birding with others.
"For other people, they just like the birds. A lot of the birds are very striking and very beautiful," Palmer said.
Still others engage in the friendly competition of sighting birds that others have not yet seen in a given area. He admits that when he was younger, that was a primary attraction for him.
Regardless of the reason for engaging in birdwatching, he said one aspect of the experience is true for all. "It's a relaxing, enjoyable hobby."
Palmer said the number of volunteers for the Christmas Bird Count was down a little this year, but he said he is fortunate because people from DSU, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Lake Herman State Park are always willing to help. He had volunteers walking in all seven areas of the count circle, which measures 15 miles in diameter with the center being near the northwest corner of Lake Madison.
Bame was among those responsible for counting birds in the area which includes Lake Herman State Park. He was joined by employees Melissa Ziegenhage-Riedesel and Walker Ruhd, retired employee Scott Gustaf and Angela Behrends, who sometimes works as the park naturalist during the summer months.
"We're not experts by any means," Bame said, exempting Gustaf from that classification. "We know just enough to get ourselves in trouble."
Gustaf, who Bame does consider an expert, was their local go-to person for bird identification and settled a dispute regarding a sparrow. The similarities between a house sparrow and tree sparrow are such that articles have been written to help birders distinguish between the two.
"We saw a good number of species," Bame said, noting that he and Behrends watched the bird feeder for a couple of hours and then walked the Abbot Trail.
"It was a fun little hike. We spooked three or four does. We actually saw a great horned owl," he said.
Among the species he reported seeing were the hairy woodpecker, downy woodpecker, black-capped chickadee, red breasted nuthatch, white breasted nuthatch and red-bellied woodpecker.
"We only have one in the park," Bame said.
The red-bellied woodpecker is not a rare bird, but there's only been one which has made Lake Herman its home, according to Bame. For three or four years it had a mate but seems to be on its own again.
He noted they saw some hawks as well, but weren't able to identify the kind of hawk.
"You have to make sure to positively identify them to count them," Bame said.
Like Palmer, he recommends birdwatching as a hobby. He noted that people can begin by drawing birds to them.
"If you're looking for something fun to do, put a bird feeder in the back yard and watch to see what comes," he said.