The Ottumwa Courier

December 29, 2012

Piercing eagle eyes on watch

Wapello County Conservation oversees annual bird count

MARK NEWMAN
Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — One measure of an area’s environmental health is the change in wildlife populations. But counting birds as you drive along the road is tough — not to mention dangerous.

“There were six volunteers on the drive today, besides me, and we have a 15-mile [diameter] circle that is [known as] our count circle,” said Annette Whittrock, the naturalist at Pioneer Ridge Nature Center and an employee of the Wapello County Conservation Board. “We had two vehicles out with two different paths. We drive slow, look at trees or fences, identify and count birds. We count birds in flight, too.”

She agrees that the average person driving along the road is not going to notice every bird in a tree along the side of the road.  

“You have to be looking for them. There were times we nearly drove past them. You need to have your eagle eyes, and you have to really be paying attention to [the trees] —  unless you’re the driver. Then you keep your attention on the road.”

If they couldn’t figure out what a bird species was, they would stop and get close. That’s why their home counters are important.

“We have people who watch their feeders today (Friday),” said Whittrock.

They do the same type of count: species of bird and number of that species.

“Today, we counted from 8 a.m. until noon, then from 1 until 4:30 p.m. Now, once I get all the information from our home counters, I compile it all and send that on to a regional compiler.”

She said this activity is going on all around the United States. The question, of course, is why.

“The Christmas Bird Count is the longest-running bird count, done for [more than 110] years. That information is used by the Audubon Society to monitor the health of bird populations and the [results] of conservation efforts,” Whittrock said.

That means, she said, that Audubon and other groups can make informed decisions as they shape their policies and recommendations.

There were some interesting moments Friday, Whittrock said. They drove through Ottumwa, near the river and the lagoons at Ottumwa park. They passed Garrison Rock and drove through Agency.

“We saw quite a few hawks today. But the one thing we normally do not see is white pelicans. There are two white pelicans at the [Des Moines River] that are obviously injured. If they weren’t injured, they’d be gone by now. They’ll probably be considered rare birds [for Ottumwa], so I’ll have some explaining to do.”