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Birds by the numbers

Volunteers look to the skies during annual Audubon Bird Count

December 29, 2012
By HANS MADSEN, , Messenger News

It didn't take very long Saturday morning for Tom Johnson, of Centerville, to get the first bird species checked off his list during the Webster County segment of the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count.

He spotted a flock of snow buntings just outside of Otho on the way to Dolliver Memorial Park from the group's pre-dawn meeting at the Tom Thumb restaurant on U.S. Highway 169.

Of course, to get a good look at them, you need to stop and since the road ditches are full of snow anyway, after parking for a few seconds on the road, he moved on and the buntings flew away.

Article Photos

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Breck Johnson, of Fort Dodge, left, watches as Tom Johnson, of Centerville, works to get his tape recording of owl calls working right early Saturday morning in Dolliver Memorial Park while they participate in the Audubon Christmas Bird Count.

The next spot, in Dolliver, had a place to pull off the road.

Second species off the list there.

"There's our eagle," he said as a large specimen flew north along the Des Moines River, "right on schedule."

Of the dozen volunteers who joined the count this year, three of them made the trek from Paton - Evans McWilliam, a longtime bird watcher; Adam Taylor, who's been active for about eight years; and Dave Crandell, who was out counting for the first time.

Crandell said he attending because Taylor asked him,

"Why not?" he said. "I have the time."

Of course, such an explanation cannot go without some ribbing.

"Your wife asked me to lose you in the woods," Taylor said.

Their presence on the bird count might leave home a bit sparse.

"With the three of us here," Taylor joked, "it's half the town gone."

McWilliam and Taylor said they attend counts in other areas too; it allows them to see that much more.

"It's nice to switch," Taylor said.

The veteran bird counters, such as Tom Johnson, get to see the longterm trends.

"Southern birds are moving north," he said. "We're going for roadrunners today."

He's also seen some species losing numbers.

"There's been a loss of partridge, quail and pheasant," he said.

In addition, new species are invading. For example, he said, the Eurasian collared dove was released in Florida about 15 years ago.

"It's spread through most of the country," he said. "They displace the mourning dove."

Following their time in the field, the volunteers met at the Prairie Resource Center at Brushy Creek State Recreation Area to tabulate the results and enjoy some of co-organizer Jennifer Johnson's chili.

Breck Johnson, co-organizer, said that as of noon, the number of species counted was lower than expected: 34 had been spotted.

"Forty is normal," he said."The record is 48."

Most of what was seen is normal for the area and time of year.

"Nothing incredibly rare," he said.

Several common species had not been spotted yet.

"We're still looking for house finches and purple finches," he said. "Hopefully, we'll get some off the feeder counts."

He wasn't going to give up, some of the volunteers and himself were going back out.

"I foresee 40 by the end of the day," he said.

For more information about the annual Christmas Bird Count, visit



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