Birds of a feather flock to Austin

Published 10:53 am Thursday, January 8, 2009

To many outdoors enthusiasts, birds are simply birds, creatures who chirp and have feathers and fly south for the winter.

But Pete Mattson and Dick Smaby know better.

They know our southern Minnesota birds have names like Goldfinch and Canada Goose and Black-Capped Chickadee. They know some are more rare in these parts than others, and they know that in the wintertime, some birds actually stay here, while others, such as the Yellow-Bellied Sap Sucker, do indeed fly south.

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Birding is a popular hobby all over the country, and the same is true in Austin.

The region has its own chapter of the Audubon Society, a national organization that aims to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife and their habitats. Mattson, who plans birding into any place he travels, is the 2009 president of the Austin Audubon, while Smaby, who once saw a Robin-like Varied Thrush species near the country club, is membership chairman.

“They say bird watching is the most popular outdoor activity,” Mattson said. “It’s not strenuous, and all you need is a pair of binoculars.”

Mattson and Smaby agree that the birds that migrate for the winter do so primarily for food purposes.

The Yellow-Bellied Sap Sucker, for instance, Mattson said, is a species of woodpecker that migrates south because it lives off sap, and in southern Minnesota, conditions aren’t ideal for sap in the wintertime.

Other migratory birds include robins, warblers, black birds and many of the hawks and raptors, who all survive off either worms, insects or rodents, which are all difficult to find in the colder months.

Other species, however, the kind that survive off seeds, for instance, do not migrate.

“Certain birds always stay around here,” Mattson said, who added that there are always a few exceptions. “Other birds will be up north for the summer and come down for the winter.”

The Austin Audubon held its annual Christmas Bird Count Jan. 4 from 5 a.m. to 4 p.m., when 16 field observers and seven feeder counters counted the area’s species over a 15-mile diameter count circle. The count is held annually by Audubon chapters nationwide. It’s the longest running wildlife census to assess the health of bird populations and to help guide conservation action.

In Austin, this year’s bird count resulted in 39 species and included 3,586 birds, less than the 50 species and 4,664 birds counted in 2007. Included in the count were 147 Canada Geese; 809 Mallard; 93 Blue Jays; 152 Black-Capped Chickadees; 98 Cardinals; 141 Goldfinches; 117 House Finches; 224 Starlings; and 336 Sparrows. Some substantial spottings included the Great Blue Heron near the East Side Lake Dam, a Pileated Woodpecker and a White-Throated Sparrow.

Mattson said the Austin Audubon has roughly 100 members and added that it’s a nice group to be a part of. He’s been a member for four years.

“It’s a great reason to be outdoors,” he said. “You get a chance to hear from some other folks, and there are some folks in our local Audubon Society who know a lot about birds.”

Smaby has been a local Audubon member for the past three decades and has seen 240 species of birds in the county over that span.

“I’ve done this so long, you just know what kind of birds are here,” Smaby said. “The thing about bird watching is it doesn’t take much. A pair of binoculars and a book and you can bird watch anywhere, anytime of the year. It’s just a good hobby.”

Those interested in joining the Austin Audubon Society can call Mattson at (507) 567-2570.