Eagle-eyed: Father, son are dedicated bird counters

Monday, October 2, 2006

HAVANA, Ill. -- They've witnessed nearly two dozen young bald eagles fledge from their nests and have marveled at ungainly American pelicans that manage to fly in graceful undulating lines.

But it's the chance to lend a hand to birds along the Illinois River that keeps them coming back.

Since the spring of 1996, Richard and Sigurd Bjorklund have volunteered their time to survey birds at the Illinois River National Wildlife and Fish Refuges headquartered near Havana. The refuge complex includes Lake Chautauqua.

They count birds every week of the year and haven't missed a single week in the last four years, even though Sigurd must travel 155 miles to do it. Richard, 78, is a retired Bradley University professor from Topeka, and his son Sigurd, 49, is pastor of St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Maryville.

For their efforts, the father and son enjoy a front-row seat for the constantly changing parade of herons, egrets, ducks, geese, swans, shorebirds and eagles that pass through or make the refuge home.

In return, refuge personnel get concrete information that can help them make decisions that benefit the refuge's avian residents, as well as its visitors.

"The Bjorklunds provide some invaluable information for the Illinois Rivers National Wildlife and Fish Refuges as well as the Illinois River on a broader scale," says refuge manager Matt Sprenger. "Their information can help us time draw downs to when certain species are coming through and also helps us evaluate habitat management actions that we've taken out on the refuge."

Providing the right habitat at the right time is critical. That's why the Bjorklunds' survey, which shows what types of birds are present and when, is so important.

"This is a stopover place, a refueling spot where they can rest and replenish themselves because they travel very long distances," Sigurd says. "And if you would look at Illinois from the air, you would find there are limited places where they can land to get the kind of food that they need in order to refuel."

For survey results to be comparable from week to week, the Bjorklunds travel the same route, stopping for the same amount of time at each station.

"The idea is to compare what you see week to week with about the same units of effort in the same place," Sigurd says. "One fallacy that people have about what we do is that we are trying to count every bird on the refuge, which is impossible. Can't be done. Birds fly."

Richard says by keeping the methods consistent, future researchers can duplicate the study to see if habitat management decisions turned out to be beneficial.

Especially challenging to identify are shorebirds that sometimes are viewed at great distances through spotting scopes.

"Those shorebirds are the toughies," says Richard, referring to the small and often drably colored birds that blend into mud flats and vegetation.

Molting ducks that have lost some of their distinct coloration provide their own challenges.

"This time of the year, especially, it is challenging to identify whether or not it is a blue-winged teal or a green-winged teal," Sigurd says. "You almost have to see it fly."

But watching birds fly -- and thrive -- is the reward for hours spent counting, and for Sigurd, countless miles in the car.

"It is wonderful to be out on the cross dike and to have the pelicans come over and be able to hear the wind going through their wings, and to watch what appears to be such an awkward bird be so graceful in the air."

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