What better way is there to start the new year than by getting up early on New Year’s Day and heading for the great outdoors to count birds?

What better way is there to start the new year than by getting up early on New Year’s Day and heading for the great outdoors to count birds?

That’s what Pittsburg State University biology professor Steve Ford and his wife, Cindy, plan on doing, Back around 1988 or so they started the annual Mined-Land Christmas Bird Count.

The annual count follows guidelines established by the National Audubon Society, which state that the winter count, which is over a century old, can be held any time between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. It must take place in a circle with a 15-mile -wide diameter.

“We do the count on New Year’s Day,” Ford said. “We divide the circle into sections, based on the number of people who show up, and start counting. We count, or try to, every bird that we see and end up with the different number of species we see, and the abundance of them.”

He said that an average of 10 or 12 people usually take part in the count, though they have had as many as 16 or 18.

“If the weather is bad, we may have only seven or eight,” Ford  said.

Those interested in participating should meet at 7 a.m. New Year’s Day at the Scammon Expressway. The count circle will be west of Scammon.

The mined-land count is one of several scheduled in southeast Kansas.

Results from all the counts across the nation will be reported to the National Audubon Society to create a pool of information used buy ornithologists and conservation biologists to determine how the birds of the Americas are faring over time.

Ford has noted some changes in the birds seen locally.

“There are more bald eagles,” he said. “When we first started this, it raised some excitement to see an eagle, and now we almost always see eagles.”
On the other hand, the once common bobwhite quail is seen less and less.

“As a kid I hunted quail with my grandfather in Indiana, but in the last 25 to 30 years their numbers have declined,” Ford said. “We see a few bobwhite quail on the Christmas count, but not many. Some years we don’t see any.”
He attributes the decline to the loss of the bobwhite quail’s habitat. The birds require native grasses and shrubs, and the industrialization of farming, loss of native grasses and herbicide use on weeds have destroyed many areas once suitable for quail.

“Some species of  birds, such as English sparrows, crows and starlings are not so sensitive, but others, such as the bobwhite quail and other grassland species, have more specific habitat and food requirements,” Ford said.

He said that his own background was in wildlife ecology, and he developed a special interest in birds during graduate school.

“I met my wife in graduate school and she was a birder, as were some of the other graduate students,” Ford said. “I started hanging out with them and enjoyed it. I took an ornithology class and liked it. Now I teach an ornithology class at PSU.”

He and his wife are also active members of the Sperry-Galligar Audubon Society, which meets at 7 p.m. on the last Thursday of the month in room 102, Yates Hall. Meetings are open free to all interested persons.
“Many of our programs aren’t about birds,” Ford said. “We have programs on anything in nature.”

He and his wife help out  in building bluebird houses as a fundraising project for Sperry-Galligar Audubon.

“We sell them at our annual birdseed sale, and we also placed some at Krimson Kultuur, the Enactus store at 111A W. Fourth,” Ford said. “I understand they were sold out, so we’ll take a few more there.”

Anyone wanting additional information about Sperry-Galligar Audubon Society or the Mined-Land Christmas Bird County may contact Steve and Cindy Ford at 620-632-4280 or e-mail chapter Wayne Bockelman at waynebockelman@hotmail.com or chapter vice  president Megan Corrigan at mcorrigan@pittstate.edu.

“We’re delighted to have new folks at the count,” Ford said. “Some people think they have to be strong birders to participate, but they do not. If we have newcomers, we pair them with an experienced bird watcher. They only thing they really need is to bring a good pair of binoculars.”

Getting outside and closer to nature may actually be a good way to begin a new year because it can foster a deeper appreciation of  the natural environment. That could lead to more efforts to protect that environment and those who live in it.

“Often we’re not very sensitive and are shortsighted,” Ford said. “We may say we like animals and nature, but often other things seem to take a higher priority.”