On the watch
Bird enthusiasts use the latest technology to search for and report species in SW MN
Cold weather might keep a lot of people indoors during the winter, but not avid year-round birders like Garrett Wee and Roger Schroeder.
“It’s really neat that it gets you outside,” said Schroeder, who has been birding for more than 20 years. “It’s something my family got me interested in. We’ll take trips to different parts of the country to go bird-watching. I go year-round but slow down when I get busy with other things.”
According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service statistics, there were 47 million birdwatchers/birders — 20 percent of the population — nationwide in 2011. Roughly 41 million are considered backyard bird-watchers, while 18 million are birders who intentionally search out and observe birds at least one mile from home.
Minnesota birders rank 11th in participation (25 percent of the population). Vermont ranks the highest, with 39 percent.
“My interest in the outdoors has always kept me close to nature,” said Wee, a Lakeview High School graduate and student at Southwest Minnesota State University. “My grandparents would always have bird feeders set up and I would always take the time to watch them without ever really knowing what they were. Outside of that, I never really paid a lot of attention to birds until a bright male cardinal arrived at my grandparents’ bird feeder one spring and I just became infatuated with this bird.”
After that, Wee said he started paying more attention to birds.
“I finally purchased a field guide and read through it and found some really neat birds that I wanted to go see,” he said. “It started off small in my backyard and now I am finding myself traveling to find birds — sometimes in some rather strange places as well.”
Wee continued, noting that what he likes most about birding is “the variables and how many species can be found.”
“A guy could search all corners of the state and still not find all of the regular occurring species,” Wee said. “What I find interesting is that most people don’t realize how many species come through our local area. Lyon County draws over 230 species annually and likely more with the addition of a few rarities.”
Those variables are exciting and keep him on his toes, Wee said.
“I used to be a huge sports card collector and every time I would open a pack of cards, I would hope for that rare card as well as a new card I can add to my collection,” he said. “I like to think of birding in that kind of way — you never know what you will find. Finding rare birds is a bonus. I have had my fair share of some jaw-dropping sightings — in most cases, birds that stray far from their usual range.”
Marshall resident Doc (C.Paul) Martin recently reported that a pileated woodpecker had nested in one of his trees. It came to Martin’s attention when he spotted a large hole carved out of the tree, along with wood shavings on the ground.
“You don’t usually see the pileated woodpeckers in town,” Schroeder said. “They’re a large bird, so you can imagine how big the elongated circle nest size is.”
Schroeder has seen his share of birds over the years. For about 15 years, he helped out locally with the annual Christmas Bird Count sponsored by the National Audubon Society.
“The Marshall group got started long before me, in the ’60s and ’70s,” Schroeder said. “I was one of the more active ones during the times I helped out with the Marshall club. I also spent seven or eight years as the statewide compiler of the Christmas Bird Count. I’d take all of our (statewide) paper copies and get them into a database. It was a lot of work. Now it’s online.”
Both Schroeder and Wee submit their bird sightings to eBird.org.
“I love reporting my sightings to eBird,” Wee said. “It’s so easy to use and it keeps track of everything — literally almost everything. I have yard lists, patch lists, county, state and country lists. eBird also keeps trend logs of your own sightings so one can look back and see how trends have been changing based on their own observations.”
Wee believes the online reporting is extremely important.
“I have found out that there are very few birders out here, which interestingly enough, the few locals, including myself, have really made an impact in the birding community and have opened a new door to the birding world,” he said. “Southwest Minnesota has a lot of unexplored territory and we are now finding that a lot of birds that, according to other sources and field guides, shouldn’t be found in southwest Minnesota are much more common than the rest of the birding community realizes.”
eBird enables birders to visualize data with interactive maps, graphs and bar charts, with features available in English, Spanish and French. A birder simply enters when, where and how they went birding.
“The bar charts are very useful, Schroeder said. “It breaks every month into four columns. If you want to go to Arizona to see a certain bird, you can see what’s the best time to visit to see that bird.”
Along with apps that one can use on his or her phone, Schroeder said that eBird is very useful for people just starting out.
“If you’re looking for a short-eared species, for example, you can zoom in to the geography to see if anybody has reported a sighting,” he said. “The cool thing about bird watching in this state is that there are so many people with different skill sets.”
eBird even allows birders to enter information from decades ago.
“That’s kind of neat for places like Garvin Park, which might not be visited as much as state parks,” Schroeder said. “It lets other people know what can be sighted there.”
Birders can also further share their experience by uploading photos to eBird.
“I enjoy photography,” Schroeder said. “The last several years, I do more photography than anything else. I go to different spots around the area and wait for something unique to show up. I have more patience than I used to, so that helps.”
In addition to the personal enjoyment of birding, Schroeder said he’s also grateful for opportunities to pass along the activity to others.
“I was with a family friend — 15-year-old Nolan Meyer — not too long ago and we spotted short-eared owls,” he said. “They migrate through here but don’t nest like the great horned owl. If you’re around any wildlife area with pine trees, you might flush one out. It’s pretty cool. I’m trying to pass (the birding passion) on to the next generation, too. Nolan is a young birder, but he doesn’t need much help anymore.”
Once on the eBird site, a person can go to “explore data” and then “explore a region” to search nationwide. To search locally, type in “Minnesota.” Overview information reveals that there have been 415 species sighted in the state since 1977.
People can also search by county, hotspots or recent visits.
“My favorite sighting this winter is actually quite close to home,” Wee said. “It’s an area just northwest of Cottonwood, into Yellow Medicine County, called Spellman Lake Waterfowl Production area. One evening, I took a walk and found three species of owl, totaling seven birds — two long-eared owls, four short-eared owls and one great horned owl. It was so surreal observing this many in just over an hour of birding.”
During January and February, 74 species of birds in Lyon County were reported on eBird. Birders in Yellow Medicine reported 59 species, followed by 38 in Lincoln County and 12 in Murray County.
“My current state list sits at 299,” Wee said. “I’m hoping to find 300 this March.”
Toward the end of winter, Schroeder said he tends to look for certain species of birds in the area.
“There’s always a few that are the markers of spring,” he said. “The Baltimore orioles, brown thrashers and belted kingfishers are early migrants, so then you know it’s coming. Usually, the ducks have passed through by then and there’s no going back to winter.”
According to local bird sightings, Schroeder said spring appears to well on its way.
“Everybody is seeing birds — like the bluebird and meadowlark — early,” Schroeder said. “The cool thing is that I’ve done this so long that I know the sights and sounds, so I can bird watch wherever I am — even if I’m bike riding or taking a walking break at work.”