ULLIN — Binoculars, spotting scopes and bird guides in hand, Karen Mangan, a biologist at Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge, and Kim Rohling of Marion, a volunteer at the Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge Christmas Bird Count, headed for Bellrose Waterfowl Reserve.
Nine volunteers fanned out over an eight-mile circle emanating from refuge headquarters at Shawnee Community College. Over the next 12 hours or so, the birders would record the number and species of birds calling that corner of Southern Illinois home on Dec. 18.
A total of 87 species were identified during the day.
The tradition of Christmas Bird Counts began in 1900. And, this is the 26th year of the Cypress Creek event. For Mangan, this is her 14th at Cypress Creek. Each year she has focused on the waterfowl holding at the Bellrose Reserve.
For Mangan and Rohling, the count began well before they reached the closed part of the refuge — thousands of snow geese were grazing in a field just east of the refuge. And, the tornado-like pattern of snow geese landing seemed never-ending.
Meanwhile, just across the road in the flooded areas of the refuge, ducks — thousands of them — fed casually: mallards, gadwall, green-winged teal, widgeon, northern shovelers and pintails. In corners of the flooded fields, little was visible except the brilliant green heads of mallard drakes.
Despite the impressive appearance, this was not a banner year at the refuge.
“This was a pretty slow year,” Mangan said. “We were missing all our diving ducks. I think it’s because it’s been so dry. We don’t have as much water out there this year as we normally do.
“This time of year is usually about our peak. We’ve had years we’ve had 18 to 20,000 ducks out there during the Christmas Bird Count. It just hasn’t really picked up this year like it usually does.”
While the totals might not have been as impressive as in years past, mallards seemed to hold in virtually every puddle of water deep enough to float a duck.
But, in addition to counting waterfowl, Mangan and Rohling counted a couple dozen bald eagles, hundreds of robins and crows, cardinals, juncos, woodpeckers and hawks of nearly every persuasion.
At the end of the day, the duo tabulated the numbers from all the volunteers. The data from this count, and thousands of others throughout the United States, is sent to the Audubon Society.
“I enjoy participating in Christmas Bird Count because you have a chance to add to a data set that has been ongoing for about 120 years,” Rohling said. “Here, it’s about the 25th to 26th year, so all of that data helps us get a better picture for these snapshots in time of abundance of birds. And, you can probably look at climate change with that, and I’m probably most interested in that aspect.”
And, although Mangan and Rohling failed to uncover any unusual species, they were treated to a close-up view of about a dozen common snipe.
“I loved seeing those snipe,” Rohling said. “It’s really special to see them up close because usually they are so cryptic and hiding in the mats of vegetation that you don’t really get to see them. We got to see them up close. And, even though they are snow geese and people complain about them, just to see that many birds in the air or on the ground at one time is pretty remarkable.”
The Cypress Creek count is held annually the Monday before Christmas. One of the things Mangan hopes to count next year is more volunteers.
“Our participation has really dwindled,” she said. “I think they used to have a lot more people. We used to get some folks from the Illinois Natural History Survey. Most of the people participating have been Audubon members. That group is getting older and older.”