2018 Audubon Christmas Bird Count

Steve Lekwa

The weather on Saturday, Dec. 15, was pleasant, to say the least! Winds were calm. The sky was clear. There was no fog. Temperatures climbed steadily throughout the day from a crisp mid 20s start to an afternoon high of near 50 degrees. What’s not to like about that on a mid-December day? It was also the day for the Ames Area Christmas Bird Count. All those good things made finding birds a bit more difficult, but I’m not complaining.

Mild, snowless conditions meant that birds were not stressed. Natural foods in the form of waste grain, weed seeds, dried berries and hidden insects were still easy for them to find in many places. Most streams and the larger lakes still offered open water. Harsher winter conditions actually make finding birds easier. They seek shelter in patches denser cover. They have to feed more heavily to keep their internal fires burning even as natural food sources become more difficult to find. That tends to concentrate winter birds around well-stocked feeders, open water (including heated bird baths) and wildlife food plots.

Birds were widely dispersed and enjoying the weather, but they were still found. thanks to diligent searchers. Seventy-two species were logged in the Ames count area; about average for the past several years. Total numbers of some of the more common winter birds were less than usual, though. I wish I could say that was true for European starlings. They far outnumbered other songbirds in the Nevada count area, though they probably didn’t outnumber Canada geese. The Nevada count area covers the far eastern edge of the Ames count circle. We hiked through several areas that have been productive birding sites in the past. Big oaks, pines, cedars and Douglas firs at the Nevada cemetery have harbored day-roosting owls, hawks and a variety of winter songbirds in the past, but the best we could find there on count day was a few house finches basking in the early morning sunshine, a single white-breasted nuthatch and sadly, more starlings. A nearby site was entirely quiet and without birds, even though it has produced at least one owl every year for years. We’ve logged all three species of of nesting owls at one time or another at that site in past years (screech, barred and great-horned). The Nevada Country Club had more golfers than birds when we hiked through that lovely area after lunch. The Jennet Wildlife Area south of Nevada has always been a good spot for wintering native sparrows, along with an occasional pheasant or even wild turkey. I finally saw a single distant male cardinal there after hiking a half mile through great winter bird habitat.

I was pleased to encounter a flock of cedar waxwings feeding on honeysuckle berries near the old Nevada dump, and my wife, Sue, added a lovely male bluebird that stopped by our yard for a few minutes to visit his home from last summer. We were pleased to report a little red-breasted nuthatch, a northern bird that seems to be around in higher-than-usual numbers this winter. It’s always sad when we find old bird feeders standing empty and unused at sites that used to host lots of birds. I know there are still folks who enjoy feeding birds, but several of the feeder sites we’ve visited for years are gone. Even though birds were harder to find on count day, it was still a very enjoyable day of looking for birds with other folks who enjoy birds and being outdoors as much as I do.

Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.