For nearly 50 years, a group of people have gathered shortly before sunrise each New Year’s Day at Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge.
After a brief meeting, they venture out in groups to different areas of the refuge to count as many different bird species as they can before sunset and the gates of the refuge close.
Many of the two dozen or so birders who spent this New Year’s Day roaming the 7,724-acre refuge were veteran birders like Stephen Wagner.
The refuge Christmas Bird Count was the fourth one of the year for the 64-year-old Millford, Ohio, resident.
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“He usually does five Christmas Bird Counts in the area each year,” said Wagner’s wife, Donna.
“I don’t know if I’m going to do the fifth one or not this year,” he said.
The National Audubon Society has been conducting Christmas Bird Counts at locations across the country for 115 years. This year’s count began Dec. 14 and ends today. The data gathered is used to assess the health of bird populations and guide conservation efforts across the United States.
The count at Muscatatuck has become a tradition for some such as the Wagners.
They’ve been traveling to the refuge for 30 or more years, 62-year-old Donna Wagner said.
“We come over the night before and stay in a hotel at Seymour,” she said.
“We came out yesterday and saw an eagle and an owl within
20 minutes of each other,” she said. “That’s what we like about coming here.”
You can see wildlife anywhere she said, but not in the variety you see at the refuge at one time.
That’s the reason they also visit the refuge at other times of the year.
Most of the birders like the Wagners come from other areas including New Albany, Bloomington and Indianapolis. There are a few local birders such as Dave Crouch, 70, of Seymour. He took up birding eight years ago after he retired and had more time.
“I came to it late in life,” Crouch said.
He’s still learning some of the tricks of the trade like how to draw birds out of the brush by mimicking sounds to attract them.
He and his wife Sally joined two other birders, Steve Gilstrap of Bedford and Rosemary Saurer of Nashville.
The group’s goal was to identify 38 to 40 different species of bird.
Crouch demonstrated a sound he has learned over the years to draw birds hiding in thickets out, and he can now identify some birds by their sounds or songs. Some longtime birders, however, can do that just by hearing a note, he said.
Park Ranger Donna Stanley said refuge officials appreciate the work of the birders.
“We get caught up in the management of the refuge every day and we don’t have the time to see what’s out there,” she said.
That makes the work of the birders important.
“It’s not about counting one bird,” she said. “It’s about trends. We’re a refuge for migratory birds.”
Stanley said the sand hill crane is a prime example of following a trend. Fifteen years ago, there weren’t many sandhill cranes moving through the area.
“We have a number stay at the refuge all winter now,” Stanley said. “They’ve found they can winter here and not have to go farther south.”
She said the birdwatchers spotted 72 species of birds Thursday, including 2,357 sandhill cranes.
Stanley said the Christmas Bird Count is one of two big counts conducted each year. The other is in May, but there also is monthly bird counts.
She said its hard to predict how many people might show up for the Christmas Bird Count, although the weather generally doesn’t stop bird watchers from coming out.
“There might be a dozen or there might be 30,” she said.
The birdwatchers break up into groups and head to work in different areas as soon as the sun starts rising. Some will stay all day.
Birdwatching is encouraged at all times in the parts of the refuge that’s open to the public. Anyone who sees an unusual bird is encouraged to tell refuge staff.
There also is a list of the more than 270 bird species counted at the refuge over the years.
To view the list, visit fws.gov/refuge/muscatatuck.