You could call it "citizen science."

For 56 years, groups of Decorah-area birding enthusiasts have been helping gather data about the bird population in Northeast Iowa.

Decorah is one of hundreds of communities across the nation that take part in the count each year and submit their findings to the National Audobon Socety.

The 2012 Decorah Christmas bird count took place Saturday, Dec. 22.

More than 19 volunteers braved heavy snow and subzero temperatures to participate in the annual event.

"This year's conditions were somewhat challenging for the participants. The day started out at 2 degrees below zero, following a fairly heavy snowstorm as well," said Larry Reis, naturalist and natural resource manager for Winneshiek County Conservation, who compiled the bird-count data for the Decorah area.

Reis said of the 19 participants, 10 go out into the countryside, covering a 15-mile radius around Decorah, and nine stay in town to watch the numbers at local birdfeeders.

"The people who venture out look for every bird they can see. People take different routes, so not everyone is looking at the same bird," said Reis.

Reis said the local "feeder watchers" monitor their private bird feeders and record the most of any species they view around their feeder at one time on that particular day.



The numbers

Reis said some of the highlights from this year included l,060 Canada geese.

"The record was last year at 1,904. What's interesting is they're a species that wouldn't have been counted at all 40 years ago. The ones we have today are a subspecies of the original geese, which has been restored. They're a non-migratory goose, which is why we see them all winter," said Reis.

He said today's Canada goose is twice the size of the ones he grew up seeing.

Participants also logged a record number of dark-eyed junco, at 849.

"They're snow birds that live north of here and come south to Iowa for the winter. This is warm for them. We usually have lots of weed seeds for them to forage and they also come to people's bird feeders. They're a nice little bird," he said.

Other notable finds in the latest bird count were a duck called the "gadwall."

"We saw two of those, which is a record. We've only recorded them one other time. They're common in the fall and spring, but usually by Dec. 22, they're down on the Gulf Coast," he said.

This year, birders recorded 41 bald eagles, which is down from last year's record of 103.

Reis said this year also saw a record high for sharp-shinned hawks at four.

"They are a bird that normally summers up in northern Minnesota and kind of wander down into Iowa looking for songbirds to eat. It's not really a common hawk," he said.

Reis also mentioned the first-ever winter wren was spotted at Twin Springs.

"It was a nice little find. They're smaller than a house wren, and wrens and colder weather don't usually get along," he said.

Even with the bitter cold, Reis said the birders identified four Eastern bluebirds and six American robins.

"Robins have really benefitted over the years by learning to live with people. People have also planted food sources, in the form of crabapples and high-bush cranberries," he said.



Celebrity birds

Reis said this year's count also spied several "celebrity birds" that come south to Iowa.

"We saw 16 purple finches and two common redpolls. Redpolls come from the North Pole, so we see them here maybe one out of five or 10 years. They usually stop at the Canadian border," he said.

Another interesting find, according to Reis, were 44 pine siskins, which look like a goldfinch with a striped belly.



The history

Reis said although Decorah has only been participating in the bird count for just over half a century, the National Audubon Society started cataloguing birds in the early 1900s.

"Our local information goes into a big database. Over time, it provides good information and bird numbers and patterns over a long span of time," he said.



All welcome

Reis said he welcomes anyone who thinks they might be interested in participating in the bird count to contact him at 563- 534-7145 or email nauralist@neitel.net, or Dennis Carter at 382-3754.

"It's free of charge and it's fun. And we also welcome people who kind of like to watch birds or care about the environment," he said.

"We're more than happy to help get people interested."

For more information about birding activities in Winneshiek County, visit winneshiekwild.com