All the pretty birds: Community members participate in Christmas Bird Count

FHSU University Relations and Marketing

By Rachel Rayner

HAYS, Kan. — Nature enthusiasts recently turned their eyes to the sky as part of the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count, a tradition in Hays for nearly every year since 1944.

Watchers count how many birds of each species they find within a 15-mile diameter circle, centered a few miles south of Hays, and send the data to Audubon, which then adds it to the data gathered from other counts held across the western hemisphere during a two-week window.

More than 20 nature enthusiasts met at 7:30 a.m. in room 169 of Albertson Hall on the Fort Hays State University campus, some wearing coveralls and hunting gear with bright orange fabric.

“It’s not rifle season, but you want to be safe anyway,” said Jim Strine, a former district forester in Hays who has participated in the count for many years.

Most of the participants are faculty, alumni or students of the FHSU Department of Biology, but there were also professors of computer science, history and philosophy, some of whom were first-time bird watchers.

Dr. Greg Farley, professor of biological sciences as well as interim dean of the College of Science, Technology and Mathematics, led the count and divided the volunteers into teams of four to five people, each led by an experienced watcher, and gave them maps of the circle, assigning each team an area to cover.

The same circle of land has been counted for 40 years because it provides a mixture of habitats — woodland, plains, urban and stream.

“Without the generosity of the landowners allowing us access to their property, this wouldn’t be possible,” said Farley. “We’re very grateful to them.”

More than 2,000 circles are in the western hemisphere, some of which have been in existence since the first Christmas Bird Count in 1900.

“I’m a big fan of data,” said Farley. “The information collected within these circles is important because it tracks the long-term bird population over every winter, forming a continuing trend. These take place all across the continent and give a wide sampling area as a baseline. It’s one of the best population data sets in the world both for animals and in general. The information is used by all sorts of organizations who are interested in understanding nature and preserving it.”

The large data sets are released every year and are compiled by Audubon’s Important Bird Program director, Connie Chen Sanchez, an FHSU graduate who studied for her master’s in zoology with Farley.

“The reason she was hired was the experience she had with big data sets. She worked with 40 years of data from FHSU’s bird counts,” said Farley. “I’m very proud of her.”

The Hays circle doesn’t just count birds. They also count cats. Cats, both feral and domesticated, are responsible for killing an estimated 1.4 billion to 3.7 billion birds annually in the continental United States. Farley, a cat-lover, advised cat owners to keep their cats indoors during the winter, when birds are migrating, and especially on cold mornings when the birds are under stress and trying to find food.

Before checking on one of the teams, Farley stopped by Big Creek next to Forsyth Library and counted nine cats.

“That means there are at least nine more we don’t see,” he said.

The teams also track the amount of time they spend bird watching and the number of miles walked or driven. This gives an index of effort, enabling the data to be compared with other circles, because a circle that has 1,000 volunteers who walk a collective 5,000 miles will see far more birds than 20 people can. A simple comparison of strict bird counts would skew the bird population information, both in terms of geographic area and historical numbers.

Attendance varies every year, as does the weather. Some years only six people attend because the wind chill might be minus 38 degrees — five years ago there was two feet of snow and more snow falling at a rate of two feet an hour. Sometimes, the most birds are seen in the colder years because they cluster around patches of open water or piles of seeds, trying to find enough food to survive the cold.

This year, the weather was perfect for bird watching. Fields of frost sparkled under the newly risen sun, and distant tweets broke the stillness. A team of two graduate students and two instructors of biology walked toward the sound of the birds, hoping to see them. The group spotted a bright red northern cardinal, exciting Angel Sprague, a biology graduate student from Benicia, Calif.

“This is only the fifth time I’ve ever seen one,” she said. “We don’t have them in California.”

The atmosphere of the group was jovial but constantly aware of its purpose.

“You’re out with friends looking at nature,” said Farley. “What would you rather be doing?”

Curtis Schmidt, the zoological collections manager at the Sternberg Museum, has been coming with a group of friends for more than 10 years. They meet for breakfast at Pheasant Run, Hays, every year before the count begins.

Schmidt has watched birds for years and can classify them just by listening, often hearing their calls before looking to the trees. Many of the birds are hard to spot, and only their movement reveals them. Experienced birders can classify a bird just by the shape, time of year and flying pattern.

“There’s a red-breasted nuthatch,” he said. “It’s one of the only birds that can go down a branch head-first. Sometimes you see their behavior before you actually know what type of bird it is.”

“You could throw me down in any part of the country, and I could figure out where I was just based on the birds,” said Farley.

Counting is often estimated, but the birders are more interested in relative presence and absences of species than in exact numbers.

Circles compete with each other across the state to see who can find the most species. After the count, the Hays circle always meets for lunch, where people chat and eat while tallying the birds seen that day.

Dr. Doug Drabkin, associate professor of philosophy, said that although he is not a birder, he enjoys attending the Christmas count every year because it makes him more awake and aware of the world around him.

“I go with people who are competent, and after a while you begin hearing and seeing things differently,” he said.

This year one of his sons, Ben, came home from college the day before and decided to come with him.

“It gives me a reason to go out in a field and look at nature, which isn’t something I do often, but when you make an event out of it, you’re more likely to do it,” said Ben.

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