The Audubon Christmas Bird Count
—by Steve Lekwa
With the exception of a New Year’s Eve gathering with old friends, most of another year’s activities are done. The 2014 Audubon Christmas Bird Count on December 20 was the 115th annual event of it’s kind; the grandfather of all “citizen science” projects. I have enjoyed being part of this winter activity for nearly 40 years, and have helped count birds in many parts of the “Ames count”, a circular area 15 miles in diameter centered on the intersection of Highway 30 and Interstate 35. My count area has been the eastern edge of the circle around Nevada for the past 20+ years.
Birding conditions were not particularly favorable for the 2014 count with cloudy, misty, and even foggy conditions. Birds were less active and flying conditions were poor for the larger birds like hawks and eagles. Warm weather and recent rain had re-thawed many of the smaller ponds. Hundreds of geese and a few ducks that had been concentrated on the old tile pit pond at the west edge of Nevada before the thaw had dispersed to several smaller ponds around our area. We had been watching a lone snow goose that was hanging out with the Canada geese, but couldn’t find it or the ducks on count day. It’s still around, though, since I saw it flying with some Canada geese only a couple of days ago.
We used to log many of our Nevada count birds at local feeder stations, but only a few of the feeder sites we used to watch are still being tended by their owners. It’s kind of sad to see forlorn empty feeders with no birds in yards where we used to see many species. Even some of the feeders that still had feed in them had few birds around due to the weather conditions.
Even though conditions were tough and our total bird numbers were down, we ended up logging 29 species; a little higher than our usual number. I have often brought a young friend along to help with counts in the past. Dean, my helper this year, is only in 6th grade, but he’s already an accomplished birder with a growing life list that challenges my own. We’d have missed several birds without his sharp eyes and ears. One of our first birds was a young bald eagle buzzing geese roosting on a local pond. Our best sighting of the day was three bluebirds sitting on a wire south of town; the only bluebirds seen in the Ames count circle. Some friends logged a grackle at their feeder. Though common enough in summer, it’s rather rare for one to stay for the winter. We spotted a barred owl at the same place we’ve seen one several years in a row. This old friend was, as usual, being harassed by a group of crows that chased it into a tree not many feet away from us. The most unusual bird of the day by far for the Ames count was a pine grosbeak that was seen and photographed at the ISU Horticulture Farm east of Gilbert. These large northern cousins of cardinals rarely come as far south as Iowa and fewer than 10 have been seen in Story County in records stretching back to the late 1800s.
Any one year of Christmas Count data is of limited scientific value. The combined efforts of thousands of eager birders and the accumulated data base of more than 100 years becomes significant, though. It is helping to document the continued steep declines of some North American species such as grassland birds. It’s also documenting ongoing winter range expansion to the north for many species as winters (on average) become warmer and shorter.
I look forward to lots of outdoor activities in 2015 and will continue to share with you what I hope will be interesting observations and thoughts on our wonderful outdoor heritage and conservation issues. Perhaps I’ll see you at one of our outstanding parks, trails, lakes, or wildlife areas in 2015. Have a great outdoor new year!