All eyes on the birds of winter

Those of you spending time outdoors in Marion County have probably noticed the large flocks of geese flying over us, and the large flocks of blackbirds at sunset heading to their roosts. While winter does not boast the highest species diversity of birds in Kansas, it does offer some interesting moments for intrepid or casual birdwatchers.

Canada geese and snow geese have been landing in the fields next to my house. I find geese interesting in both an ornithological and culinary sense. So I went to the store to renew my hunting license for year 2015.

The state and federal government does not always spend our money in ways that I agree with, but I am always happy to buy the full set of necessary licenses and stamps to hunt or fish for wild animals. I see it as an investment in the future of wildlife.

In particular, the federal duck stamp is an efficient conservation program that has boosted our waterfowl populations tremendously since its inception in 1934. Across the USA, any person wanting to hunt geese, ducks, or coots must buy a stamp, sign it, and carry it with them while hunting. Ninety-eight percent of the money from the $15 stamp goes to purchase and maintain wetlands for the National Wildlife Refuge. Ducks then use these wetlands to breed in the spring and as habitat during migration.

I bought the licenses, and then waited for the geese to return to my backyard. Alas, they must have received word of my intent.

So this past Saturday, I invited my 7-year-old nephew Gustav to join me in an expedition to the public hunting grounds around Marion Reservoir. We put on our coats, gloves, hats and loaded the binoculars, bird field guide book, shotgun, and steel shot into the truck and drove to French Creek.

We had skipped breakfast, and hence we were hunting while hungry. I know that to avoid breaking a budget, one should not grocery shop when hungry, but this felt satisfyingly primal. Rabbits, squirrels, pheasants and quail were all potential targets.

Apparently, our forest exploration was too noisy. We found no game, but various woodpecker species pounded on decaying wood high above us, and song sparrows flitted through the brush. The creek was completely frozen over, so there was little incentive for ducks to be in the area. Geese were flying high overhead. Where were they going?

We returned to the truck and drove farther north. Squirrels jumped across the Osage orange trees, but mysteriously disappeared once we hiked into the tall grass and waited for them to make another move. I suspect they were watching us the whole time, frozen to their tree trunks, waiting for the predators to move on. The squirrels? patience exceeded ours.

Finally, we decided to survey the south side of the reservoir. We drove to the dam and looked over the water. Payday! Hundreds of waterfowl sat on the ice or floated on the yet unfrozen sections.

We scanned the flock with our binoculars. Most of the birds were Canada geese or mallard ducks, but a few white-fronted geese stood together as a group, blending in with the Canada geese.

About 10 bald eagles also sat on the ice or perched in the trees near the shore. The presence of the bald eagles is also testament to the effectiveness of modern environmental laws, particularly the banning of the insecticide DDT since 1972. DDT had weakened their egg shells so much that many eggs were collapsing under the weight of the brooding adult.

Since the ban on DDT, bald eagles have done so well that the species was taken off the endangered species list in 1995, and even off the threatened list in 2007.

Since we had no retriever dog or boat, there was no point in attempting to harvest the waterfowl that were far out in the water. We returned home without firing a shot and with no meat, but greatly inspired by the beauty of the wild.

Please spend some time this month, if not hunting, at least observing the migratory birds that use our local waterways. The future of wildlife in our nation and the world relies in large part on our acknowledgement of its value to our economy and spirituality.

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