QUIVIRA NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE — Through about 25 years of serious birding, Mike Rader has made many great memories at the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.
He has seen mile-long flocks of blackbirds snaking across the sky and watched vast flocks of waterfowl nearly blot out a sunset as they came or went from the marsh.
Memories from his visit on Friday this week to the refuge 90 minutes northwest of Wichita will be about a lack of birds in those same skies.
“Was that one honk or two?” Rader asked as he unsuccessfully searched for the source of a familiar sound in the late afternoon grayness. “Well, there’s at least one Canada goose at Quivira, anyway … one.”
Many other species were in amazingly short supply, too.
Rader, of Wilson, was one of about 18 birders at the refuge’s annual Christmas bird count. The Quivira count is one of about 50 counts held in mid-December through early January in Kansas to record species and bird population numbers and trends.
Quivira’s count is often rated as the best of the thousands in the nation for some popular species.
“Some years we’ve had the nation’s highest counts for snow geese, Canada geese and (white-fronted) geese,” said Bob Gress, a longtime count participant and retired Great Plains Nature Center director. “We’ve had blackbird counts well up in the millions.”
Barry Jones, a Quivira biologist, said records show a past tally of about 12.5 million blackbirds one year and goose numbers in the hundreds of thousands on several counts. This year’s tally was about 500 blackbirds, 1,000 snow geese and the lone Canada goose.
After two years of devastating drought, hopes weren’t high when birders headed out for Quivira’s 52nd official count.
“This is usually such a gem for wildlife,” Rader said as he and Robert Penner headed down a road of soft, blown sand. “That’s not going to be the case this year.”
Like all official counts, participants were spread throughout the same 15-mile circle studied in previous years.
With teams averaging three birders, generally one member was assigned the job of carefully tallying what others located. Penner was mostly the one logging the numbers, while Rader used a variety of tools and tricks throughout the morning.
Stopping frequently in areas of dense cedars, tall grass and brush, Rader played the recorded sounds of an eastern screech owl. It often took only a few seconds before scores of sparrows and woodpeckers of several species were on hand to confront a perceived enemy.
Other times Rader made a series of hissing notes with his mouth.
“It’s the kind of sound some birds make when they’re scolding something,” Rader said as he watched some Harris sparrows, a species long on size and looks, excitedly bounce about in a cedar a few yards away.
Both birders had quality binoculars and used them often. Rader had a powerful spotting scope when real magnification was needed.
But throughout the day, Mother Nature easily trumped the best man-made birding equipment.
Friday’s weather conditions were considered poor, at best, for birding. Dense clouds often painted the landscape in a dull gray that made spotting birds difficult.
The loud, high winds that preceded Friday night’s storms packed a one-two punch because birders like Rader and Gress rely heavily on hearing bird calls for Christmas bird count finds. High winds also caused many species of birds to hunker in thick cover.
Worse was how the most severe drought in at least 60 years had turned Quivira’s marshes into thousands of acres of glorified sandboxes. The little water available was widely exposed and offered migrating fowl little vegetation for food.
Rader noted that with about 3,000 ducks, a small, irrigated wetland of about five acres on nearby private property probably held more waterfowl than all the assorted puddles on Quivira combined.
An ongoing project to remove thousands of trees from Quivira in an effort to return it to pristine prairie also may have contributed to some of the lowest bird numbers in memory.
“As birders we kind of selfishly wish they hadn’t (removed so many trees) because we want a lot of diversity,” Rader said. “But we also understand what they’re trying to do. The kind of (sand prairie) habitat they’re trying to preserve is really disappearing quickly.”
At the end of the day the birders gathered to give Rader their counts.
The total of about 77 species found was higher than expected, though below the record high of 101 species in 2005 and a recent average of around 90 species per count.
Some of the numbers found per species brought frustrated laughter when Rader read them aloud. Only about 1,000 combined geese and 310 red-winged blackbirds? Just four gulls and not a single Cooper’s hawk?
Even the most pessimistic of the bunch wouldn’t have predicted such low numbers that morning.
“That’s one of the things about birding, it’s just so unpredictable,” Gress said. “That’s one of the reasons why we keep having a good time.”
The Wichita count
Twenty participants totaled 98 species on Saturday's 59th annual Wichita Christmas Bird Count.
“That 98 is certainly in our top 10 of all time," said Kevin Groeneweg, count compiler. “I think 105 species is our record, but anytime we get in the upper 90s, that's a good count."
Groeneweg said Canada geese were the most common species found through the 15-mile-wide, circular count area, with more than 20,000 birds. The count also found about 6,200 cackling geese, the much smaller version of true Canada geese that usually aren't as common during Wichita counts.
Birders had no first-ever count finds, but Groeneweg said several species were located for just the third time in count history.
“We had three pelicans. They're usually on our big reservoirs by now," Groeneweg said. “We also had horned grebes and red-breasted mergansers for only the third time."
Birders also found more red-breasted nuthatches and double-crested cormorants than in most years.