Her hobby is for the birds

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
The fastest-growing outdoor activity in the United States is bird-watching.

A survey by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service indicates that 51.3 million Americans report they watch birds, and those numbers are escalating.

That’s no surprise to Kerrie Kirkpatrick, 59, of Peabody who has been bird-watching for almost 40 years.

“I spend most of my effort on birding,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s the most fun. One of the joys and conveniences of bird-watching, one of the attractions and why so many people do it, is because they are the animals easiest to see.

“When you’re out bird-watching, you might see a fox and around here, probably several deer. But you’ll see 20 to 30 kinds of birds any day. And in the spring and fall migration, you’re likely to see many more different kinds.”

Bird-watchers come in all shapes and sizes-from children to senior citizens-and from all walks of life.

“A bird-watcher is a person who likes to watch birds and their activities, whether it be on a feeder outside their window, on a walk in the woods, or a person who travels to specific places to see birds,” Kirkpatrick said. “It can also be someone who studies birds in school.”

Serious birders learn to identify birds by sight and sound and usually record their data on check lists and/or computer programs.

“Birders are notorious for keeping lists,” Kirkpatrick said. “Most people maintain a yard list, state list and year list. People in Kansas keep county lists.”

She became a bird-watcher by accident when, as a young married woman, she moved with husband Jack to northern Virginia near Washington, D.C.

Kirkpatrick was homesick for Hutchinson, where she was raised. It was a special time in her life when she enjoyed being outside and wandering through the Kansas woodlands. But as an adult employed in research in the big city, she daily rode a bus to and from work amid overcast skies.

“I was used to the bright sunshine,” Kirkpatrick said. “By the time March came around, I was looking forward to spring and the cherry blossoms.”

At the library, she discovered a book titled “Spring in Washington” by a foreign diplomat who observed birds while commuting on his bus trips in and out of D.C.

“As soon as I read it, I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do,” Kirkpatrick said. “So I found an Audubon book store and got into a bird club. I was 22.”

To some extent, Kirkpatrick is self taught, but she learned from others who shared her enthusiasm for birding, too. She also collected many reference and field guidebooks along the way.

Before moving to Peabody three years ago, she amassed a long list of bird-watching credentials through the years as a research librarian with the government. Beginning in 1992, she was under various contracts with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to compile biological survey data for 60 different military bases.

“They were basically bird check lists for different locations,” Kirkpatrick said. “They asked me to do a graphic representation of when the birds occurred so that wildlife managers who were not birders could look at this and know what to expect and when they occurred.”

Among a long list of activities in Virginia, she established two hawk-migration watches and a bird-banding project. In Kansas, she has participated in monitoring avian productivity surveys at Fort Riley, is a board member of the Kansas Ornithological Society and currently holds memberships in the Wichita Audubon Society and the American Birding Association.

Since 1980, she has been a field-trip leader and breeding-bird census taker.

“My specific interest is in migration, and I make an attempt to record as many species as possible that move through spring and fall,” Kirkpatrick said.

Recording is for personal enjoyment, but has implications for wildlife management and conservation.

“The relative abundance of species and numbers of each species as they come through in migration every year can give indications of population trends as well as the effect of weather on migration,” Kirkpatrick said.

“I’m particularly interested in raptor migration. People from different hawk watches compare notes, and there’s a centralized database in Pennsylvania. In Kansas there are no hawk-watch sites because there are no mountain ranges or coasts to concentrate flights. You can occasionally see a hawk migration here, but you can’t count on it.”

Her outings to bird-watch include trips in the county on her own about twice a week. Joining other bird-watchers, she frequently ventures to other parts of the state, too.

“Often, there are three-day weekends to Quivira and Cheyenne Bottoms or to the far eastern or western parts of the state,” Kirkpatrick said. “The Kansas Ornithological Society has spring and fall meetings each year, and there’s usually a birding festival in the spring.”

Spring in Marion County is the easiest time to see the most birds.

“You want to be everywhere in the second week in May-every day and all day,” Kirkpatrick said with a smile.

Typical birding equipment might include a pair of binoculars, a vest, heavy boots and socks, a hat, field guidebooks and check lists.

“I specifically wear heavy cotton pants, even in the summer, because of the ticks and chiggers,” Kirkpatrick said. “I wear ankle-high boots if I’m staying on the trail. If I’m going bushwhacking into the woods and grassland, I’ll wear knee-high boots.”

Often the best vantage point to bird-watch is from her 1998 Jeep. If observing near a body of water or a hedgerow, she said her vehicle acts as a blind.

“But I also like to walk,” Kirkpatrick said. “So I usually plan to hike at least some distance. In this area, there are a lot of country roads that take you close to good places. And there are a few land owners I’ve gotten permission to go on their land, but usually it’s from the road.”

After settling in Kansas, Kirkpatrick thought lack of vegetation and shorter trees would translate to easier bird-watching.

“But I found that with less brushy habitat, the birds were harder to find here,” she said. “I was quite disappointed.”

But the numbers of bird species in Kansas did not disappoint her.

“There happen to be more birds recorded in Kansas than there were in Virginia, even though Virginia is a coastal state and can count a lot of sea birds,” Kirkpatrick said.

“Kansas is fifth in the nation, with 465 species, after California, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. We happen to sit right in the middle of north/south and east/west. Each of those areas has specific populations that do not go into the other quarters, yet we get them all.”

In addition to focusing on raptor migration in the spring and fall, Kirkpatrick is interested in observing sparrows.

“Sparrows are very difficult to identify and to see,” she said. “They can go hide, and a lot of them are plain and brown. There are 36 different kinds of sparrows that can be seen here in Kansas.”

Before she joined the ranks of bird-watchers, Kirkpatrick could recognize about 10 birds, such as the robin, meadowlark, crow and duck. Today, she can recognize about 600 and has observed many more than that.

Among her favorite birding memories is the time a fellow bird-watcher and photographer from Marion spotted a snowy owl, atypical to the area, along the dam at the Marion Reservoir about two years ago.

What was her reaction when he led her to see the bird?

“Wow,” Kirkpatrick said. “I had seen two in Virginia in 30 years, and I’d never seen one this close.”

On her wish list are two birds to spot-a Gyrfalcon and a Northern Goshawk.

“I’d like to see a Gyrfalcon anywhere in the world,” Kirkpatrick said.

“They’re a northern bird, a tundra bird like the owl, that shows up in the winter. And I’d like to see a Northern Goshawk in Kansas. They’re a northern-forest breed of bird. They would show up more often than the Gyrfalcon but not very often. Two to three of those are recorded every winter.”

Identifying a bird by its song is a difficult task-even for a musician like Kirkpatrick, who is an accomplished flutist.

“Even though I had training in music, it was hard to memorize the sounds but really essential for being able to do surveys, because so many times you can not see the birds,” she said. “You can record it as a heard occurrence. You know the bird’s there , but you didn’t see it.”

For those aspiring to know more about birds and join the ranks of bird-watchers, Kirkpatrick said it takes perseverance and the desire to do it.

“What I like immediately about bird-watching is it appeals to me the same as hunting Easter eggs when I was a child,” Kirkpatrick said.

“It was really so much fun to find these brightly colored things. Later, I wanted to be outside, and I wanted to know the names of everything I saw.”

And if you can spot her in her Jeep near a pond outside Peabody, she’ll be glad to tell you the names of the all the brightly colored birds in her ornithology basket.

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