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Field Reports: B-r-r-r-r-r-d watching

Steve Wilson of Tower and Norma Malinowski of Ely were well-bundled for the Isabella Christmas Bird Count, where the early-morning temperature on Dec. 31 was 31 below zero. Mary Shedd photo

Audubon Christmas Bird Counts are held in hundreds of areas across the country during the holiday season. Few encounter the kind of cold that often greets birders at the annual Isabella Christmas Bird Count.

Not only is it cold, but because many birds migrate away from those conditions, the counting can be a little skimpy. This year, the early-morning temperature on count day, Dec. 31, was 31 below zero. Steve Wilson compiles the annual count. Here are some excerpts from his report:

"Things didn't improve much, as the daytime high reached only -11 degrees, which combined with winds gusting to 17 mph meant this was effectively the coldest Isabella count in our 36-year history. Undaunted, 27 counters, the average number of participants for our count, took to the woods.

"Birds, however, were apparently not so eager to participate in the count as only 484 were tallied, the second-lowest total in our 36 years. The number of species found was down, too, to 18, compared to our long-term average of 22. Still, some species like blue jays and ruffed grouse were more common than usual, while others appeared in average numbers, like common ravens. And we did manage to find some of the boreal forest specialties seldom found on other counts, including a spruce grouse, a couple of boreal chickadees and four black-backed woodpeckers.

"Counter efficiency may have played a role in the low numbers, too. After all, it's difficult to hear birds when your ears are covered, or you see them through goggles, fogged glasses, frozen binoculars or icicle-laden eyelashes, all common occurrences count day."

Take a kid ice-fishing in Minnesota and fish free

Minnesota's Take-a-Kid Ice Fishing weekend is happening now through Monday. During the weekend, Minnesota residents age 16 or older can fish or dark-house spear without an angling or spearing license if they take a child younger than 16 fishing or spearing.

Be sure to check on ice conditions wherever you plan to fish.

Fish free in Wisconsin, too

Wisconsin's winter Free Fishing Weekend is set for Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 20-21. The weekend includes the availability of free loaner equipment and ice-fishing clinics, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Fishing is free for Wisconsin residents and visitors alike. No fishing license or Great Lakes salmon stamp or Inland Trout Stamp is needed to fish all inland waters and Wisconsin's side of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River and other boundary waters.

The weekend also is a chance for anglers to try the early catch-and-release trout season for free. That season opened Jan. 6 and normally requires anglers to have a fishing license and an inland trout stamp to join in.

For more information, go to and search "Free Fishing Weekend."

Trails open to fat bikes, snowshoers

Fat-tire bikers and snowshoers are welcome this winter on a portion of the trails at the Valhalla Recreation Area in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest west of Washburn.

The Washburn Ranger District, in partnership with the North Coast Cycling Association (NCCA), is allowing fat-tire bikes and snowshoes on the left half of the trail tread on Loops A, B and Little A for the Valkyrie Trail System.

"This is our first year trying something like this," said Teresa Maday, assistant ranger in recreation in the Washburn Ranger District. "If we get positive feedback and the multi-use of the trails is a success, we plan to continue it."

The trails have been signed to identify where fat-tire bikes and snowshoes are allowed. Walking or running on the trails is prohibited, as are dogs.

Many of the national forest's recreation areas charge a recreation user fee. The fee at many of the trailheads is $5 and may be obtained by self-registration envelope.

Ice caves not open yet

Despite recent cold weather, ice conditions are not safe for travel to the Apostle Islands mainland sea caves, officials with Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Bayfield reported.

"Despite cold temperatures and the appearance of an ice pack, ice conditions on the lake are very poor and the ice caves remain inaccessible," park officials said in a news release on Thursday. "The park's Ice Rescue Team tested the ice over the (past) weekend and found the early ice and slush didn't form well. It blew into shore in pieces, creating 'pack' ice that is very weak. These pieces are also jagged, making it nearly impossible to walk across."

For more information and updates, check the official Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Facebook page at; the park website,; or call the park's Ice Line at (715) 779-3397, ext. 3.