Annual Wichita-area bird count finds more than 100 species

Patty Marlett made a pretty rare find in Saturday's Wichita Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count — a young birder.

Jeff Calhoun, 22, joined 60-plus-year-olds Marlett and Bev Du Gay as they checked an established birding route in southeast Wichita.

The average age in Saturday's event was about 59.

Calhoun was the youngest by 28 years.

Held annually since 1955, the Wichita count is one of hundreds across the nation.

Information from each count is stored at Audubon's national headquarters to help with research.

From about 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, seven parties of local birders combed traditional birding routes.

They tallied species as well as individual birds.

Calhoun helped Marlett and Du Gay find 59 species.

A senior at Wichita State University, he realizes few of his generation participate in organized wildlife watching.

"Young people are very busy with school, getting careers going and then getting families started," he said. "But I also think a lot of it is that kids these days get less exposure to the outdoors than they used to."

Birding isn't the only outdoor sport hurting for young newcomers.

Mike Miller, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks information chief, said the average age of a person buying a Kansas hunting license is probably in the upper 40s.

"I think about every outdoor activity is experiencing some bursting of that baby boomer bubble," he said.

Calhoun learned his birding skills the old-fashioned way.

He's combined a lot of personal study with many days afield with veteran birders.

In Marlett's car, the group laced back and forth on roads close to the Arkansas River.

Their first stops found a few bald eagles and flocks of Canada geese and mallard ducks.

The birds got smaller the more they moved southward.

Sometimes they used binoculars and a spotting scope to check the water in sandpits from behind locked gates.

The trio moved freely in parks, often walking trails through brush and trees along the river.

Marlett often played the recorded sounds of an eastern screech owl on her iPod.

Songbirds often come to mob the small, predatory birds.

Calhoun used his prime-of-life hearing to detect the calls of some birds on the other side of the Arkansas River.

He used young legs to cover more ground than his partners.

Juncos were common in most areas with brush and crows and starlings so thick their numbers could only be estimated.

Marlett smiled when she found two black-capped chickadees. The species was decimated by West Nile virus several years ago.

A barred owl was also a good find.

An even better find would be more young people in coming annual counts.

Marlett, Wichita Audubon secretary, said most events are dominated by people past 50.

"It's not something you can do when your kids are little and you have a lot of Christmas things to do," Marlett said of why it's easier for those over 40 to attend.

Calhoun hopes more eventually get involved in local Audubon functions.

Along with monthly programs at the Great Plains Nature Center, the group hosts a variety of birding tours.

It also owns and supports the 230-acre Chaplin Nature Center near Arkansas City.

"It would be a real shame to lose it," Calhoun said of the Wichita chapter. "It does an awful lot of good things."

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The results

More than 100 species of birds were found on Saturday's Christmas Bird Count.

That's only the second time the annual count's broken 100 since 1955.

Kevin Groeneweg, Wichita count compiler, said some things were predictable, like about 20,000 Canada geese and 5,000 mallards on local lakes and rivers.

There were some special finds, too.

"One of the most notable things was that we had over 5,000 robins in the area," Groeneweg said. "Bald eagles totaled about 20. I think that's about typical."

One of the most unusual finds was a great egret, a large white wading bird common in the summer but usually gone before the first frost.

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