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Jasper County Tribune

Despite shutdown, volunteers hold annual bird count at NSNW Refuge

Not even the federal government shutdown could stop a group of bird enthusiasts Saturday from their annual adventure.

Members of the Friends of Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge and the public drove out to the dirt roads in groups around the Prairie City area Saturday morning for the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count.

The count helps scientists collect important data about our Iowa birds. The findings allow scientists to study the health of bird populations both at the Refuge and statewide. ​

Each group was given a two-page list of about 150 birds to investigate when they gathered at 8 a.m. Saturday. About 22 people met at Casey’s General Store in Prairie City and divided up into five driving groups to go out and explore.

Once inside the 5,600-acre Refuge, bird-watchers parked and went out into the woods to check out how many birds they could find.

Historically, when the group does their annual bird-watching event, they meet up inside the Refuge. Scott Gilje, refuge manager, said in the past the bird counters congregate afterward at the Refuge Prairie Learning Center and have a soup lunch prepared by the Friends group and compare notes. Gilje said all of that still took place, but due to the ongoing federal government shutdown, no one was allowed in the facility.

“It’s just the visitors are not allowed inside the center to observe what we have going on here,” Gilje said. “Everything else is still open, including the hiking trails and tour route. Anything outside is still open to the public.”

Some of the most common birds found Saturday include sparrows, starlings, blue jays and eagles. Linda Powell of Newton, one of a handful of people to attend the count, said in the sparrows and sparlings variety they spotting more than 20 each.

While driving through the prairie Refuge, Powell said the key to spotting birds is listening for their songs. It helps, she added, to shut off your vehicle engine to hear once you drive up to an area with large trees where they might be.

“Besides the sparrows and the sparlings, there’s 85 total. I love being outside, but I really love learning from people,” Powell said. “I like listening to the sounds. I feel like that’s something I should be doing. Because you hear it before see it, and that’s how you find it.”

One other tip she learned while bird-watching for four years is approaching a group of birds, they are most likely not the common sparrows, but something else.

“The first time I went out, somebody looked ahead and said, ‘Look some horned larks,’” Powell said.

Steve Sorensen, another bird watcher, said he does this occasionally in Iowa as well as when he and his wife take their annual camping trip to Arizona.

“My wife just signed me up for it. I’ve always kind of been interested in birding,” Sorensen said. “I’m very much a novice, but it’s just fun to come out here and be with people that know their birds and can help you identify them.”

Contact Orrin Shawl at 641-792-3121 ext. 6533 or at

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