One cold morning in December, 25 volunteers bundled up to search the skies around Mark Twain Lake to count the bird population. Starting as early as 3:30 a.m., the nine teams pointed their binoculars to cover 298 miles around the lake area in search of our feathered friends. It’s the first time our neck of the woods has been covered in the official bird count for the National Audubon Society.

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The annual December bird count has been going on for 121 years. The Hannibal area was added to the official locations in large part because of George Wisdom, a member of Mississippi Hills Master Naturalists. He put in hours of work filling out the lengthy application process that the Audubon Society requires to even be considered. Once he got approval, he had to put out the call for volunteer bird watchers. He hoped that ten people might be willing to brave the winter elements for his pet project. As the morning dawned, 25 people showed up armed with binoculars. They were amateur backyard bird-feeder enthusiasts mixed with experienced birders who’ve been scouting for different species for decades.

So, how did Hannibal’s Christmas Bird Count go? What did 25 people see?

Participants covered 298 miles, counting 3,300 birds—49 species—ranging from an abundance of geese (960) ring billed gulls (467), blue jays (253), European starlings (253), and American crows (144)—to the much rarer sighted golden-crowned kinglet (6), northern harrier (1), and song sparrow (1).

The North American avian population in the last 50 years has dropped from 10 billion to 7 billion. Counting picks up trends: the health of a species, how changes in habitat affect bird populations, how recovery can happen, often dramatically.

In the meantime, another bird count is coming up in Hannibal. “Magnificent Migrations along the Mississippi” will be 1-2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 21 at the Hannibal Regional Airport on County Road 425.

Gale Rublee, certified nature interpreter for Hannibal Parks & Recreation, said Hannibal residents are in a unique position to observe many of the migrating birds in the great Mississippi River Flyway.  More than 325 bird species make the round trip from breeding grounds in Canada and the northern U.S. to wintering grounds along the Gulf of Mexico and in Central and South America, according to the National Audubon Society.

Rublee said, “You’ve probably seen some of the big birds like swans, pelicans, snow and Canadian geese, vultures and ducks of all types. But what about the smaller ones like different warblers, finches, sparrows, orioles, the bobolink, and so many others? Let’s celebrate and gain a greater appreciation of where we live along this magnificent migration route.”

Hannibal Parks & Recreation nature programs are free but space is limited and reservations are required by calling Hannibal Parks & Recreation at 221-0154 or emailing mlrichards@hannibal-mo.gov. Masks will be required when inside the building.

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