Every December, a group of Clinton County Conservation employees, along with a handful of dedicated volunteers, armed only with binoculars and field guides, venture out into the fields and forests surrounding the Lost Nation area to count birds.
We count every bird we see. Every individual bird and species spotted is tallied. Why do we do this you ask? The count is part of the Audubon Society's annual Christmas bird count, the nation's longest running citizen science project. This year will mark the 117th of the annual count. The Lost Nation count has been going on for some 34 years.
The first such count was held in December 1900 and was proposed by ornithologist Frank Chapman. Up until this time, it was tradition to hold Christmas “side hunts." The hunt involved shooting as many birds as possible, regardless of species. Chapman, who later founded Audubon magazine, proposed counting rather than killing birds. Conservation was in its infancy at this time and many observers and scientists were concerned about declining bird numbers.
That year, 27 observers took park in the first count in 25 places in the U.S. and Canada. Today, there are well over 70,000 people in 17 countries taking part in the annual event.
Although it's called the Christmas bird count, local counts can take place anytime from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5. The Lost Nation count that the Conservation department assists with will be held Dec. 15 this year and covers a 15-mile diameter area centered just south of Lost Nation. Birders walk the fields and forests and drive the back roads in order to count every bird they can in the 177 square mile area. Individuals who live in a count area can also participate by simply counting birds at their bird feeders if they like.
Last year, 14 birders tallied a record 64 species and more than 7,000 individual birds in the Lost Nation count. When I first began participating in the county some 32 years ago, it was nearly unheard of to spot a bald eagle or a Trumpeter swan. Today, these species are becoming much more common. During last year's Lost Nation count, 116 bald eagles and 91 Trumpeter swans were counted. In comparison, only one bald eagle and no Trumpeter swans were spotted in 1984.
As you might expect, weather plays an important role in determining which bird species are found in our area. During last year's count, the weather was mild with temperatures in the 40s. The mild weather made it possible to count 149 American robins, a species that typically isn't seen in our area in December. Most of these were found feeding in a grassy field. Species of waterfowl such as the Mallard duck (527 counted) and Canada goose (459) were also abundant.
The Ring-necked pheasant, a species that has been on the decline due to a combination of habitat loss and wet cold weather during the nesting season numbered only seven. During my first count in 1984, the pheasant numbered 24. I am hoping that with more ground being enrolled in habitat programs and more favorable weather, their numbers will be up this year.
The data gathered by our local count is sent to the Audubon Society where it is compiled with other counts across the nation. Over the many years, trends in bird numbers and long-term health and status of bird populations can be determined. This information can then be used to help protect critical habitat and identify potential environmental issues.
Amateur birders are welcome to participate in a count. For more information, or to find a Christmas bird count near you, go to the Audubon Society's website, Audubon.org or contact the Clinton County Conservation Board at (563) 847-7202.
Walt Wickham is the Executive Director of the Clinton County Conservation.