Hardy bird watcher: Faithful show up for popular refuge event despite rain

As rain poured from gray and cloudy skies at Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge, Park Ranger Donna Stanley reminded bird counters of something she noted a few days earlier.

“When it rains, birds don’t fly,” she said.

Not 100% accurate, but a high enough of a percentage to tamp down expectations for the 10 people gathered in the darkness outside the refuge’s closed visitor center for what is called the Christmas Bird Count, even though it was taking place on New Year’s Day.

However, these were hardy bird watchers, devotees who are not easily intimidated by weather, who unlike the winged objects of their attention, chose not to seek shelter from the elements.

COVID-19 pandemic restrictions were still in effect at the refuge, which was why the birders had to meet outdoors.

The rain made the whole exercise a little bit trickier, trying to predict which of Muscatatuck’s most popular birds might show themselves.

“Cardinals are probably one of our most common birds,” Stanley said. “If you’re really lucky, you might get a snowy owl or a golden eagle or horned owls. You just never know. I’m not a lister myself, but I really enjoy looking at them.”

It helped the mood somewhat that the rain was accompanied by a 59-degree temperature around sunrise, so clothing was all about staying dry, not necessarily warm.

The Christmas Bird Count, which has been going strong around the nation for about 120 years, is designed for passionate volunteers to try and see as many different species as they can during the course of a day. Officials can review the data and get a rough sense of trends in bird populations.

In a typical year, about 70 species of birds are sighted at Muscatatuck. Armed with binoculars, sharp hearing among the savvy who can tell a bird by its call, and in some cases long-lensed cameras, birders spread out in pairs or small groups around Muscatatuck’s 12-plus square miles off U.S. 50 in Seymour

That is just one of about 2,400 places around the United States that report in over a couple-of-week period. More than 50 of those are in Indiana.

On a more weather-friendly day, perhaps up to 30 birders will turn out at Muscatatuck, but the numbers were thin Saturday at about 10. Stanley sent her crew off into the rainy wilds with the comment, “Happy New Year and I hope you find lots of birds out there.”

Ellen Bowman of Columbus was a rookie at the bird count. The forecast of an inch or more of rain gave her pause, but then she spiked her concerns.

“I’ve been interested in doing it for a long time,” Bowman said. “I’ve just gotten more serious about it the last couple of years.”

Bowman said she has taken on some birding missions where she travels by kayak and shoots photos as she goes. The turning point to come out, she said, hinged on a fundamental.

“I’ve got the rain gear,” she said.

Regardless of conditions, some Muscatatuck birders are regulars. They are not wooed to Times Square to watch the ball drop to welcome in the New Year but would rather tromp through the woods keeping company with the birds.

This has become tradition to them and it is not the only place where they go to count. They journey to other locations in the state or the region where the counts are conducted on different days.

Steve Gillstrap and his wife, Linda, of Bedford, were present and accounted for, as usual at Muscatatuck. But this refuge was just one of eight places a-counting he would go. He planned to make another day of bird watching Sunday in Oldenburg, his last one.

“That’s all I have time for,” he said.

Visiting different places is likely to show off a different mix of birds. But Gillstrap loves the experience, likes being out and loves watching any birds. He is not a watcher who regularly travels the world to keep adding to his life total. Instead, he is someone who is happy to return to places that gave him pleasure.

Gillstrap said one of his favorite bird haunts is Poland, and he has hired the same guide many times. The guide has asked if he wants to explore different territory to take note of different birds than he has seen before, but Gillstrap said no, not really.

“I told him, ‘I just want to see a lot of birds,’” he said.

Likewise, when asked if he has seen any particular rare and memorable birds seen this Christmas tour, Gillstrap said, “I get excited by all of them.”

Another Muscatatuck regular who has an established routine is Dave Carr. What he has done for years — and did so again this year — is travel from the University of Virginia, where he works, to southern Indiana to visit relatives over Christmas and then shoot over to the refuge.

Carr is 40 years into his Muscatatuck ritual, but when the birders collected at 7:30 a.m., he wasn’t terribly optimistic about how well everyone would fare in the rain.

“It is pretty disappointing,” Carr said of journeying a long way only to be partially stymied by poor weather.

Still, starting even earlier than the organized count jump-started by a pep talk from Stanley, Carr spotted two great-horned owls, a great catch.

A novice may not have sensed the birds hunkered in the trees in the refuge, but some small flocks did fly for short periods and would be spied. The white-bodied tundra swans were particularly picturesque. Sandhill cranes could be seen, though especially heard in chatter. Mallard ducks were around because ponds were not iced over. A pilelated woodpecker made an appearance.

It was not as if these birds swooped down and parked on the ground or in a tree a few feet away showing off. It helped to wield binoculars.

Steve and Donna Wagner, who live near Cincinnati, were not that far out of their element. Steve said this was probably his 36th visit to Muscatatuck over 40 years for the count.

Although they were appropriately bundled against the rain, they had put in five hours of birding at the refuge Friday, the day before, making sure their excursion was worthwhile. This official count was Steve’s fourth of this year, as well.

The refuge seemed completely devoid of other visitors Saturday. No anglers, hikers or nature lovers in sight joining the birders. One year, cruising at the typical 20 mph speed limit, Wagner said he was hit from behind by another vehicle.

The driver did enough damage to injure himself and crack up his car, though Wagner had a simple small dent. Although Wagner did not say so, it could be that individual was a birder, who was distracted gazing at the sky.

Stanley hooked up the Wagners, a friend of theirs from out of town and Bowman. It was gloomy and Steve Wagner didn’t think much would be gained by searching being early birds.

At one point, Wagner was searching for a whooping crane and was pleased to find three.

Earlier on, he led a short walk behind the visitor center, and the group was rewarded by seeing cardinals. The cardinal is the Indiana state bird, and usually, there are plenty of them around Muscatatuck.

You just need to know where to look.