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Even at this inhospitable time of year, Minnesota is still aflutter with wildlife.

Bird lovers across the state and the country will take to forest, field and their own back yards this month for the National Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count.

The bird count started more than a century ago as an alternative to annual Christmas bird hunts, where groups of people would kill as many birds as they could in the name of holiday merriment. It's become one of the largest citizen science projects in the world, according to the society, with bona fide scientists now looking at that century of data.

Volunteers will gather at 7:30 a.m. Saturday at the Springbrook Nature Center to conduct the "Minneapolis North" count, which centers on Coon Rapids Dam. They fan out across the region, meeting for a potluck lunch at the nature center.

The Minneapolis North count started in the 1930s.

Longtime volunteers say they've watched how the changing landscape from farm fields to paved streets and houses has affected the types of birds they see.

In 2013, they counted thousands of birds, including eagles, cardinals, woodpeckers, blue jays and hawks. The most commonly sighted bird in the area was the mallard; 1,961 were counted.

Think the robin is the first sign of spring? Robins are actually in Minnesota year-round, with 120 counted in the area last year.

Some of the smallest birds are the most hardy. Observers counted 451 black-capped chickadees and 155 goldfinches last December. Some of the rarer sightings included one belted kingfisher, one Townsend's solitaire (a kind of thrush) and a pair of red-breasted nuthatches.

Wide range of volunteers

Retired Springbrook naturalist Siah St. Clair coordinates the count. He said volunteers of all experience levels are welcome.

"You don't have to be an experienced birder or know how to identify all the birds to be able to participate in this. The more people we have, the more birds we see," St. Clair said.

Novice birders are paired with more seasoned volunteers who can help with identification. St. Clair recommends that counters bring their smartphones to snap photos of unknown birds, which can later be identified by the group.

St. Clair said he's been participating in the annual bird count since he was a child in Michigan.

And the count data, once dismissed by scientists, is now gaining value.

"The science on this is really coming together. We are starting to show trends all across the country," St. Clair said. "It's seems to me we have more robins and cardinals each year. There are a lot of birds we are seeing a lot more on a regular basis."

Other birds, including snow buntings, have become more of a rarity as farm fields disappear.

Wanted: Sharp eyes

Many of the count volunteers are regulars at the nature center, helping out with the monthly bird banding event.

Donna Bahls will be part of the count this year. She's taken part each year for the past decade.

"We used to count thousand and thousands of geese on sod farms. Now it's neighborhoods," Bahls said.

Bahls said having a sharp set of eyes on your count team is as important as having someone who excels at species identification.

"It's a team effort," said Bahls, who is a Springbrook Nature Center Foundation board member.

Bahls' personal favorite: "It's always exciting if you see a shrike" said Bahls, explaining it is a predatory songbird. "Or a sharp-shinned hawk. That's my dark side again, with the predators."

It's also thrilling to see a bird out of season.

"One year we saw a bluebird. Bluebirds are not usually here at Christmas."

Everyone was in disbelief until the volunteer showed a picture.

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804