Birders gather for Christmas bird count - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Birders gather for Christmas bird count

NORTH LIBERTY (KWWL) - Every year around the holidays, bird enthusiasts all over the country participate in the Christmas bird count.

"Birders" get together and tally every bird they see, of all different species. Conservationists use those numbers to assess the health of bird populations. But one member of the Iowa City Bird Club gets up much earlier than anyone else, to seek out owls.

Chris Caster, a dentist by day, admits he's no morning person.

"I can't explain why I enjoy this, but I want to bring an owl home for the team, and that's just kind of my part," Caster told us.

His part involves waking up two hours before sun-up, making about a dozen stops in wooded areas. But rather than hiking through trees and bushes, Caster has a method for getting owls to come to him. He plays their unique calls on a CD through his truck speakers. 

On this count, he's particularly interested in spotting an Eastern Screech owl.

"If I find one on my route, that's good. If I find two, that's really good."

Caster didn't spot a single owl last year; he thinks the June flood may be to blame.

"I think the prey populations suffered quite a lot."

His first few calls go unanswered. "Maybe if there's an owl out here, he doesn't like reporters."

But finally, we hear one, maybe two, in the distance. Then, out of the darkness, Caster spots one.

"Oh! There he is!" Caster exclaims. One lands just feet away. Caster tries to strike up a conversation with his own call, but this bird is a little shy.

Moments later, another one shows up. "To have two is really extraordinary," Caster said.

The screech owls move on, and so do we. Caster's next few stops aren't as exciting, but that changes at his final destination. Not one, but two Great-Horned owls, and a solitary Barred owl, respond to this call.

We catch one of the Great-Horned owls spying on us from a distant branch, and see a second one flying through the trees. This season's count, Caster says, is a success.

"Getting to look at a pair of screech owls is really unusual. Finding a pair of Great-Horned owls is also very nice, and we had a bonus of a Barred owl calling from the woods, so that's really a pretty good morning."

When the sun finally rises, other birders joined the Christmas count. Around noon, they gather at the North Liberty Community Center, to tally up the different types of birds they'd spotted. After that, they headed back out to get the species they hadn't yet seen. Another bird count will happen in the spring.

Online Reporter - Brady Smith

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