Winter Birding Popularity on the Rise
Posted: 01/11/2011

By its very nature, Iowa's weather affects winter wildlife populations…particularly local and migratory birds. A warm fall keeps some migratory species around longer. Snow and ice chase many south. Those weather patterns play a big role in winter birding; whether you keep a couple backyard feeders stocked or head out for cold weather bird watching trips across Iowa.

Many local birding clubs had members trudging through the snow and cold for the Audubon-sponsored Christmas bird count in late December or early January. They and others are now making plans for the Great Backyard Bird Count, February 18-21.

Those Christmas counts are held within a three-week window; with volunteers heading out on a specific day to get a 'snapshot' of the bird life within a defined count area. Final results are being tallied, but routinely over 40 different counts are conducted in Iowa. Others are coordinated on the other side of Iowa's state line, as 'border birders' team up with another club.

Nearly a month of December snow helped slant counts toward the 'cold weather' side of the ledger. Still, open water on many rivers kept waterfowl visible. In eastern Iowa, trumpeter swans, several duck species and hundreds of Canada geese were tallied in the Iowa City area count. The trumpeters were a first time count there.

Also showing up there as a 'first' were Eurasian collared doves; 18 were spotted by volunteers in the area. A bit larger than the common mourning dove, it has a telltale black 'collar' on the backside of its neck. "We have seen a few in the summer," points out Chris Edwards, who compiled the area count. "They are from Europe and Asia; and somehow were introduced in the West Indies in the 1970s. Over the last 15 years, they have worked their way up from Florida."

The prospect of a new species should have backyard birders looking more closely during the February 18-21 Great Backyard Bird Count. Co-sponsored by Audubon and the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, it had 97,200 checklists 'turned in' last year; from all 50 states and all 10 provinces in Canada. Those backyard birders totaled 602 species, tallying the birds in their yard in 15-minute 'windows' during the four-day count. Details for getting involved are at www.birdsource.org/gbbc/.

And, while the birders enjoy the time outdoors…and many socialize as they thaw out afterwards, the count holds on to its scientific premise.

"The information goes into the national data base," says Edwards, of the Christmas counts. "For one individual count, it is hard to draw any conclusions, but over the years, they give scientists an idea of how bird populations are changing."

For instance, changing weather or crop patterns might be indicated by certain species staying longer in some regions; or avoiding them by late December. The introduction of new birds-such as the Eurasian collared doves now in Iowa-show inroads of a foreign species; challenging scientists to determine if natives might be negatively affected.

The Great Backyard Bird Count often detects 'irruptions' of species showing up in large numbers, due to weather patterns driving them out of their regular wintering region. In 2009, for instance, a large influx of white-winged crossbills was reported. Still, the number one bird tallied (in 2010) was the American robin (sighted 1.85 million times!).

Best of all, the counts provide one more 'excuse' to get outdoors. And volunteers are encouraged. Experienced birders suggest jumping in for any of the year-round bird watching or even indoor opportunities; from spring or fall migration field trips, owl prowls and indoor photo viewing sessions. Information can be found at various websites; notably www.iowabirds.org (the Iowa Ornithological Union) or the general www.audubon.org to work backwards for regional clubs in your area.