The Ottumwa Courier

December 28, 2013

Birds flock together

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — A wildlife survey may not always be easy, but scientists and animal enthusiasts say they're important.

"The Christmas Bird Count is basically used to figure out the health of bird populations," said Annette Whitrock, naturalist for the Wapello County Conservation Board, "and that information can be used in conservation decisions."

Not just in Wapello County, either. According to the National Audubon Society, the count they sponsor is "the longest [running] citizen science survey in the world ... Christmas Bird Count provides critical data on population trends."

So it was a bit disappointing to Whitrock that locally, the weather interrupted her tally.

"We didn't get to finish the count because weather was an issue," she said Friday, the day she finished adding up her figures from the count. "We counted a total of five hours, which is about three hours shorter than we normally do. We stayed out as long as we could, until it got dangerous, then we called it a day."

The wind, the mist and the foggy conditions also meant there were not a lot of birds out. The temperature dropped throughout the day.

Also blamed on the weather: a shortage of homeowners reporting bird numbers, and only two volunteers showed up to help Whitrock.

Yet, she said, thousands of volunteers around the country are doing the same count, and Wapello County has participated for years. So the count is meant to show a trend, the naturalist suspects, not just the specific number of birds in one community.

"It all goes into the same database. This gets sent on to regional, and [eventually] gets sent to the Audubon Society. It's an annual event, and we've been doing it as long I've been here (starting seven years ago), and I know they did it before that."

Nationally, the Christmas Bird Count itself has been running for 114 years.

Those figures have been used in books and magazines as well as in narratives that scientists send to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, reports filed with museums, including the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale and in at least one recorded instance, as research for a graduate student writing their master's thesis.

So what kinds of numbers is Wapello County looking at?

"It's hard to compare, due to the weather; this year we counted 32 different species of birds. In 2008, the best we've done, is 42 different kinds. We want the most we can find. We ended up with 1,909 total birds. That's usually our count for Canada geese."

There is good news, however, for wildlife enthusiasts.

"For the first time, we got to put trumpeter swans on the list. The [DNR] had a reintroduction program going on. It's just in the past couple years we've seen them around here."

Sometimes a birdwatcher or photographer will report seeing a mating pair in a lake. Last Friday, there were more.

"There was a flock of 29 that we saw," said Whitrock. "Now they're really making a comeback. It's been neat to see, and to be able to count those was great."

— To follow reporter Mark Newman on Twitter, see @CourierMark