Mike Heaney on Saturday participated in a holiday season tradition he’s enjoyed for about the past 25 years, but it has nothing to do with gifts or festive family dinners.
“It’s about citizen science, kind of the last chance for the average Joe to really contribute to birding,” Heaney said as he walked a hiking trail at Chisholm Creek Park. “These days if you don’t have a Ph.D. you can’t contribute much to research, but this does let us get involved. Plus, it’s really just a whole lot of fun.”
Heaney was part of about 20 area birders participating in this year’s Wichita Christmas Bird Count, the 60th consecutive event sponsored annually by the Wichita Audubon Society. Nationally, more than 2,300 Christmas counts are expected to be held Dec. 14 through Jan. 5, sponsored by the National Audubon Society.
All the counts contribute their findings to a national database and have followed the same basic formats for years.
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Kevin Groeneweg, compiler of this year’s Wichita count, said the count is done within a 15-mile diameter area based from the Keeper of the Plains. After a dawn meeting at the Great Plains Nature Center, Groeneweg assigned seven teams areas to study before the count was completed at 5 p.m.
Groeneweg and Heaney had the northeastern quadrant and were joined by beginning birders Tom Ebben and Joe Warren. The team’s first search was within Chisholm Creek Park. Within seconds, overhead flocks of mallard ducks and Canada geese passed, flushing from the park’s scattered wetlands. Before the counters made it to the marshes they had stopped to identify and count a variety of songbirds in cedar trees.
“That’s one of the nice things about (Chisholm Creek Park). It has some nice prairie, wetlands and some nice woods with a creek running through it,” Groeneweg said. “This is one of the best places in this quadrant because of the diversity.”
Veterans of birding at the park, Groeneweg and Heaney worked their way down tight hiking trails through thick brush, and over wide-open prairie that bordered wetlands. Countless times they predicted where they’d find a particular species, based on the habitat and what they’d found on past trips.
As they birded, Groeneweg explained how the counts provide everyone from researchers to everyday birders a good look at bird population trends for ranges. Heaney said he didn’t need to analyze much data to know things aren’t the same as in 1990, his first Wichita count.
“There isn’t nearly as much habitat as there used to be because of development,” he said. “We don’t see near the meadowlarks, or the pheasants and quail, we used to see because of less habitat. Things change.”
For some types of birds it has changed for the better.
“One of the main things that has changed has been the amount of waterfowl we find these days,” Heaney said. “We just have so much more water around, so many more ponds. It seems like we’re getting more and more ducks and geese.”
High waterfowl numbers are one reason the Wichita count is annually one of the most productive in Kansas. Groeneweg said the record number of bird species for the count is 105, and anything over 98 is considered good.
Heaney said Saturday’s clear weather, with relatively low winds, would help count numbers since birds are more active than when gales are blowing. Even though the weather has been pretty mild, severe cold in November may have pushed a lot of birds southward ahead of this year’s count.
Groeneweg said ideally counts will find some stragglers from fall migrations and some of the first from birds that come down under winter conditions. That’s one reason the Wichita count is held near the start of the count season.
“Timing can be very important,” Heaney said. “If we had the count a week or so later, I can about promise you’d find five to 10 fewer species.”
After covering Chisholm Creek Park, Heaney and Groeneweg drove different routes to the next birding spot, each checking area ponds for waterfowl. Eventually all were at Maple Grove Cemetery, a place Groeneweg enjoys because the ground’s pine trees often attract species like red-breasted nuthatches and sapsuckers, species sometimes hard to find in other parts of Wichita.
Several years ago they, along with Cheryl Miller, found a blue grosbeak in a woodlot on the cemetery grounds, a bird that’s normally long migrated from Kansas by December. That one find was unusual enough that it brought the trio national attention, and provided even more incentive to participate in future counts.
“That’s one of the things about birding, is that you never know what you’re going to find,” Groeneweg said. “You just have to get out and look.”
Good weather didn’t lead to good bird numbers for Saturday’s annual Wichita Christmas Bird Count.
“It was actually quite dismal; we had 90 species,” said Kevin Groeneweg, Wichita Audubon Society compiler for the 60th annual event. “We missed out on quite a few birds we normally get and didn’t have any real (surprises).”
As is the case nationwide, grassland bird numbers were down this year in the count area. Grassland sparrow numbers were particularly low, according to Groeneweg. Continued loss of habitat was at least part of the reason.
One of the few bright spots was geese.
“We had over 38,000 Canada geese and over 9,000 cackling geese,” he said. “We also had 524 whitefronts. That’s all quite a bit over what we counted last year.”