CRAB ORCHARD NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE – The truck carrying Don Mullison, Jody Groskind and John Van Dyk bounced down a dirt road on the closed part of the refuge to a sweeping bay on Crab Orchard Lake.

In the bright sunshine of a cold winter morning, the effort to reach the bay seemed misplaced. A cursory glance showed little to no activity. That was a momentary illusion.

The trio, volunteers who conduct a weekly water bird count at the refuge, dutifully set up their spotting scopes. Groskind trained the sophisticated glass on the opposite shore. “Oh, my God,” she said, half under her breath. She then mentioned that the orange of mallard feet filled her lens.

By this time Mullison scoped the ducks and began “counting” the birds. When he concluded, Mullison and Groskind agreed there were about 3,100 mallards in the bay. They also counted gadwall, shovelers, mergansers, great blue herons, gulls and a single double-crested cormorant before hopping back in their truck.

“We both have scopes that are very good quality scopes,” Mullison said. “You can’t do this count effectively without a scope. It wouldn’t be accurate.”

Before driving away, Groskind dutifully punched the numbers into her cell phone. Mullison made it clear they not only count waterfowl, but also shorebirds, waders and raptors normally found around bodies of water.

“They’ve done it (bird count) on the refuge for quite some time,” Groskind said. “The refuge manager started doing it, I don’t know, a couple of decades ago. They had to give it up due to shortage of staff. This is our fifth year.”

“Dan Wood, the refuge biologist, uses the data to help him get a sense of usage and where because he really studies what’s most effective,” Mullison said. “He looks at water levels. The magic number appears (to be) between two and 12 inches (that) attracts the most and varied kinds of water birds. He uses our data to let him know how successful that aspect of it is and also what kinds of feed the birds are using.”

The data is taken seriously by the refuge. Crab Orchard provides a four-wheel drive vehicle each week. The volunteers visit 26 sites on each count, a process that takes eight hours or more.

“Really, I think that does show some of the overall commitment,” Mullison said. “Rick Speer, the director, he gets our list and is very interested in it. For a while, we were just giving to Dan and him, and one-by-one, several of the staff kept asking us if we would add them to the list. This would be done by staff if they had the staff to do it.”

“They really treat you as part of their team,” Groskind said. “The refuge system is so seriously underfunded, and they are still talking about cutting funds. It just makes it so difficult to do what they need to do.”

And, the volunteers go out each week, except in the most onerous weather.

“Us and the fishermen will be out there in the five layers of clothing,” Groskind said.

Occasionally the volunteers are rewarded with an unusual sighting.

“We never know, and that depends on, how unusual do you mean,” Mullison said. “We’ve gotten that brown pelican. We’ve gotten a Pacific loon, more than once on the count in recent years. We really never know.”

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Sports editor

Les Winkeler is sports editor and outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan.

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