A reliable bird

HARVEY COUNTY — Most serious birders have a special attachment to their local annual Christmas Bird Count.

It's a chance to spend a long day afield with peers and do their part to further avian science.

Probably nobody is as closely linked to their local count as Dwight Platt of North Newton.

Saturday, he again participated in the annual event he started in 1949.

"We'd heard about Audubon's Christmas Bird Counts and we decided we'd do one," said Platt, a Bethel College freshman 60 years ago. "Three of us walked along Sand Creek north of town."

Save a few years spent working in India and time away at graduate school, Platt's continued to participate in what's officially become the Halstead-Newton Christmas Bird Count.

Most years he was the event's compiler. He has good records of the events dating back to the first count 60 years ago.

The science of the counts fit well into his career of teaching biology and other natural science classes for 39 years at Bethel. He retired in 1996.

Christmas Bird Counts are held mid-December through early January every year. Detailed records are kept of species and individual birds found.

Records are kept locally and also sent to a national data base. The findings help monitor population fluctuations and other information.

Established survey routes are followed year after year to help keep findings accurate.

On Saturday, Platt, Jay Newton and Scott McCloud birded the western Harvey County route Platt has monitored for more than 40 years.

Much has changed since he started birding.

At first the prairie was just grazed pasture. Platt said a few years after the grazing was stopped, tallgrass prairie plants — like big bluestem — reappeared.

"One change is all of the red cedar," Platt said as he walked amid scattered tall evergreens. "There weren't hardly any here back then."

Long ago, the area included prairie dog towns that held burrowing owls. Both are long gone.

During the count's early years, wild turkeys were non-existent and Canada geese and bald eagles were uncommon.

"Back then we had so many crows out here we had to have one person in charge of keeping track of crows," Platt said. "Now, most of them have moved to town. We have a lot more birds in towns these days. There are a lot more people feeding birds in town than there used to be. That's easy living."

Through the years, many who've helped with Platt's counts came from his Bethel classes.

"It was his intro to birding class that got me into this," Newton said as he walked beside Platt on Saturday afternoon. "That was in '72 and I'd always been interested in birds. I took that class and I've been doing this ever since."

Newton informally tallied numbers on a small notebook while the trio was afield. Platt made the official back at the vehicle.

Platt, Newton and McCloud walked about eight miles and slowly drove another 27-plus miles on back roads through the survey area.

All Christmas counts have their surprises. For Platt, Saturday's surprise was the finding about 513 robins but only 35 ducks and one bluebird.

The trio found at least 1,600 horned larks on wide-open crop fields. One mile-long flock was estimated to have held more than 100,000 blackbirds.

Next year's results could be far different. All indications are that Platt will again participate.

Saturday, he walked thick pastures and miles of wooded river bottoms, often leaving McCloud and Newton following far behind.

His eyes and ears identified their fair-share of birds.

On the way back to North Newton to turn in their data, talk arose about Platt's participation in the count's 70th anniversary in 2019.

"Let's just take them one year at a time," Platt said with a smile.