Counting feathers

Evans McWilliam, of Paton, almost missed getting up in time to meet everyone for the start of the annual Webster County Audubon Christmas Bird Count.

His electric alarm clock didn’t go off; however, his living one did.

“I was saved by the rooster,” he said.

He isn’t kidding. He keeps a rooster named Tom, and it does do what roosters are supposed to do – crow a bit before the crack of dawn.

While it did get him up, it won’t be counted.

The survey is limited to the wild birds that the group of about a dozen volunteers could see within an eight-mile radius of Brushy Creek State Recreation Area.

Breck Johnson, of Fort Dodge, organizes the event.

He meets with the volunteers at Tom Thumb restaurant in the morning, then gathers with them later in the day to enjoy a chili lunch and tabulate the results.

He said he’s seeing some fluctuations in some species.

“The kestrels used to very prominent,” he said, “Now they’re hard to find.”

He’s also noted a decrease in the number of cardinals, and even though they’ve recovered somewhat, pheasants.

“They’re still pretty hard to find,” he said.

In addition to the area bird watchers that were going out through the area, the bird count also relies on feeder counts done by individuals at home.

“These are very important too,” he said.

Ron and Norma Anderson, of Fort Dodge, have been participants for all nine years.

They each have their area of expertise.

“He’s good with waterfowl,” she said, while noting her area is songbirds.

They have noticed the low number of cardinals, too. However, they’re seeing more sparrows and bluejays.

He was hoping to see a lot of activity during the count.

“They feed in front of a storm,” he said.

The Andersons were heading for Brushy Creek and Beemer’s Pond. In addition to song birds and waterfowl, they were also hoping to see some eagles along the Des Moines River.

Tom Johnson, of Centerville, was surprised at a few of the species that had been spotted at the end of the day.

“We had a Carolina wren,” he said, “It’s the first time that’s ever been in the count.”

Another first, a pair of tundra swans were seen at Beemer’s Pond.

Overall, he said 39 species were spotted by the counters and that the numbers are down.

“The number of birds for a species are way down,” he said.

Typically, if the counters spot 200 of any given species, this year, they would only have seen 40 or 50 birds.

The weather patterns have helped with that reduction, too. He said the northern species have not migrated much south and due to the cold, many of the less hardy species have left the area.

Other factors in the reduction, and perhaps a reason for the cardinals numbers being low?

“The cedars don’t have a lot of seed this year,” he said, “The cornfields also don’t have a lot left.”