HONEY CREEK, Iowa — As the Huskers kicked off into a cold gust of wind, a dozen fanatics, bundled in winter coats and warm gloves and holding pricey binoculars and cameras, faced into the gusts watching intently.
But these fanatics weren’t watching the game. There wasn’t even a TV, and the only radio available relayed messages back and forth from the banding area to the Hitchcock Nature Center Hawk Watch tower about birds approaching from the north.
The group gathered to volunteer to watch, identify and count birds.
The birders were drawn to the Hitchcock Nature Center hoping for a day like the previous Saturday, when 936 Broad Wing Hawks were counted on their migration south. Considering that in a good season — Sept. 1 to mid-December — an average of 10,000 birds are counted, counting 1,000 birds in one day is huge news in the bird watching community.
Birders from as far away as Sioux City, including representatives of the Loess Hills Audubon Society and the Iowa Ornithologists’ Union, made the trip.
Paul Roisen, president of the Iowa Ornithologists’ Union, has been a Husker fan since 1968. And as a former coach and teacher in Sioux City, he also is a fan of the Hawkeyes.
“I could have had two TVs on, one for each game,” Roisen said. “But I’d rather be here.”
Roisen can quickly identify a species of bird before most can focus on the silhouettes passing in the sky. Yet he only took up birding 10 years ago.
“If you would have told me I’d be into birding 20 years ago, I would have said you were crazy,” Roisen said.
So instead of focusing on the Huskers’ Big Ten opener, Roisen arrived early and intended to stay all day keeping count.
“When I got into birding, I really got into birding. I’m just nuts,” Roisen said.
The volunteers are an important link in the chain of centers collecting data on the fall migration, said Chad Graeve, the center’s natural resource specialist and park ranger.
“They are bringing a valuable skill to conservation and donating their time to collect important data,” Graeve said.
The Hawk Watch reports its count to the Hawk Migration Association of North America, the gathering point for similar programs around the continent. The studies help determine populations and the timing of fall migrations for not only hawks and other raptors, but every bird species seen, and are extremely important to conservation efforts, Graeve said.
Graeve has spent his entire career at the center, starting as a seasonal worker and instructor before taking a full-time job in 1998. He knows what a 1,000-bird day means to the program.
“Days go by and they see 50 birds all day,” Graeve said.
In the 10-hour average day for a volunteer, that is five birds an hour. Considering the comfort level, spending all day on a tower exposed to the elements on all sides well into December, that can be a very long day of bird watching.
“That’s why they’re here — to see birds,” Graeve said.
At times there is only one birder on the tower — usually on the coldest days with the fewest birds to see. Thanks in part to a grant from the Iowa Ornithologists’ Union, the Hawk Watch now has a full-time, seasonal employee.
For five years, Ryan Evans, a field biologist from St. Joseph, Mo., has covered the holes in the schedule when volunteers were unavailable for the three-month count. Saturday was his day off, yet he spent his day with the volunteers despite being a rabid Husker fan.
“I thought this would be a very good day, but now it looks like it will be tomorrow,” Evans said.
He had predicted another big day, but the weather didn’t cooperate.
“You’re not going to be right all the time,” Evans said.
A really good day could mean a 1,000-bird day like the previous Saturday or seeing a rare sight, Evans said.
By the end of the first half against Illinois, spotters had seen pelicans, turkey vultures, bluejays, robins, chimney swifts, barn swallows, a kestrel and Cooper’s, Swainson’s and sharp-shinned hawks.
Hitchcock is one of four hawk watching sites in the world to count more than 500 migrating bald eagles. The center was also the first Important Birding Area identified in Iowa. The Pottawattamie County Park has also been named one of the top 25 hawk watching sites in North America by the National Wildlife Federation.
Evans is expecting a large number of sharp-shinned and redtail hawks to start passing through the area in about a week. The organization is also planning an event to celebrate the eagle migration on Nov. 17.
The Hawk Watch was started in 1992 on the deck of the Hitchcock Nature Center, just a year after the 1,268-acre Pottawattamie County Park was opened. In the fall of 2005, the 45-foot watch tower was erected on the top of a 1,300-foot bluff overlooking the Missouri River Valley. Each day during the season, volunteer spotters chronicle migrating birds from the tower from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Often the spotters show up early and stay late on the busiest days.
The tower is available to the public for a $2 per car admission fee. Visitors are often greeted by members of the Hawk Watch spotters due to the popularity of the views from the tower.
“They are tremendous ambassadors for Hitchcock,” Graeve said. “They are all good souls.”