The Mitchell area is home to 49 species of birds. We know because someone counted – Mitchell Republic

MITCHELL — This Christmas weekend, a group of about 20 volunteers spent their days not catching up on counting sheep, but instead counting birds.
The ninth annual Christmas Bird Count took place Sunday, tasking passionate volunteers in the Mitchell area with identifying how many different species of birds — and how many birds of those species — they can find.
The count serves two main purposes. The first is to show area residents what they’re missing when they don’t stop and look around.
Jeff Hansen, data compiler of Mitchell’s Christmas Bird Count for the past nine years, said people miss the vast majority of different species of birds because they just aren’t looking for them.
“Mostly we’ll miss everything because people don’t pay attention. Just the fact that there’s up to around 50 species of birds around this time of year, when really they only see one or two species,” Hansen said. “In Mitchell you see pigeons, but when you get out in the country and get to the right places, we often get bald eagles, we get wild turkeys.”
The other purpose is to keep some form of historical record of which species are consistently or rarely in the area.
“It gives you a record of what’s here because if you don’t do it, then you don’t know what’s out there. It gives a benchmark,” Hansen said. “What’s kind of cool is comparing it from year to year.”
The 2020 bird count, which was conducted on Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020, found a total of 14,733 birds across a variety of 49 different species — nearly 70% of which were red-winged blackbirds.

Last year’s count also tallied three new species. For the first time, bird watchers recorded seeing a spotted towhee, a Carolina wren and a red crossbill.
“This is way far west or north for some of them, so those were pretty unusual,” Hansen said. “The Carolina wren, somebody down by Vermillion gets them, and even then they’re considered rare. For them to be in Mitchell is even more rare.”
Hansen said the weather for the season and count day plays a role in how accurate the counts actually are.
“We’ve been so mild this year, so I don’t know what we’ll see,” Hansen said. “If it gets really cold and all the water freezes, that has an effect on water birds.”
In recent years, Hansen said open water near Lake Mitchell’s spillway and along area creeks has led to sightings of ducks that don’t normally reside in the area at this time of year.
“Obviously when it snows a lot, sometimes it drives certain birds to roads. When there’s no snowfall, they may be out in fields where you don’t see them. If it’s really windy sometimes, that has an effect because the birds aren’t out and about,” Hansen said. “A lot of it depends on the weather based on the day of the event.”
It’s not just local weather that can have an effect, either.
“It also depends on what’s north of here. If they have open water to the north, a lot of species may stay up there,” Hansen said. “It’s just kind of hard to predict.”

On count day, this year’s group of volunteers — some of whom traveled in from Rapid City and Lincoln, Nebraska — were assigned to one of six areas inside a 15-mile radius around Mitchell, the center of which is roughly downtown.
Volunteers could stay at home and watch their birdfeeders, camp out on a gravel road or drive around within their radius. They were encouraged to use binoculars, spotting scopes, field maps and other electronics.
Counting was encouraged for as long as possible, primarily in the daylight hours. Some volunteers counted into the night, seeking nocturnal birds such as owls.
Any birds seen by volunteers were counted, as were birds they could hear — provided the species could be identified.
“They all really know their birds. The Christmas Bird Count probably isn’t the best time to be an amateur,” Hansen said, touting the experience of the volunteers. “You don’t always get good looks, but some of the experts can tell by the way the bird flies or their habitat or color.”

Hansen said the count is a great way to analyze the trends of bird populations in the area.
“Most people don’t get out and look at birds that often,” Hansen said, “but the thing I like to tell people is we’re seeing things now that they never saw 50 years ago.”
The Mitchell Christmas Bird Count has run each year since 2013, when it was kicked back up after a hiatus that began following the 1967 count.
The count in Mitchell is conducted as a part of the Aududon Christmas Bird Count network, which has hundreds of counts across the United States.
Though the Aududon website only lists South Dakota counts in Pierre and Black Hawk, Hansen estimated there are a dozen counts across the state.
Data from this weekend’s Mitchell Christmas Bird Count will take a few days to compile. Hansen believes results will be available in the middle of the week.