LOOMIS — On a snowy gravel road on the outskirts of Loomis, Jeff and Rick Hansen stopped in their tracks, then listened.
With a short, high-pitched call, a hairy woodpecker gave up its location high in a nearby tree.
Binoculars in hand, both brothers quickly spotted the small, black-and-white bird, which hopped and fluttered its wings as it moved from branch to branch.
It was one of more than 20 species of birds the two men spotted in the area Friday morning as they took part in National Audubon Society’s 114th annual Christmas Bird Count.
Jeff Hansen, who grew up on a farm north of Mitchell and now lives in Topeka, Kan., organized the bird count in the Mitchell area. More than 20 people participated locally, joining more than 70,000 volunteers in the Western Hemisphere who participated in this year’s Christmas Bird Count, which started Dec. 14 and ends Jan. 5.
“Basically, it’s just to measure bird populations across the continent,” Hansen said.
Last year, 2,369 counts were held, with 71,531 people tallying more than 60 million birds of 2,296 species, according to the National Audubon Society. This year in Mitchell, groups searched in six regions of a 15-mile area spread around the city, looking for as many birds as they can find.
“There are teams of people that will hit those areas and tally up everything they see,” Hansen said.
For Hansen and his brother, much of the day was spent driving gravel roads north of Mitchell, stopping occasionally to peer through binoculars at birds gathered on nearby trees, in fields, or on power lines.
“You just don’t know what you’re going to find until you find it,” Hansen said. “That’s part of the fun of it.”
In a field a few miles north of Loomis, the brothers spotted a northern goshawk, a medium-sized bird of prey that is relatively rare in the area, Hansen said.
“It’s always fun to see some more unusual, rare birds,” he said.
This is the first year a Christmas Bird Count has been conducted in the Mitchell area since 1967, when a Christmas Bird Count was done by just a single person, Hansen said.
“Hopefully, now the plan will be to do it every year,” he said.
The Christmas Bird Count began in 1900, when Frank Chapman, founder of Bird-Lore, which later became Audubon magazine, suggested it as an alternative to traditional holiday side hunts, in which teams competed to see who could shoot the most birds, according to the National Audubon Society.
Over the decades, the Christmas Bird Count has helped identify birds in need of conservation and has documented success stories, such as the comeback of the bald eagle.
“When you do them every year, you get population trends and you can see the pulse of the bird population,” Hansen said.
The Christmas Bird Count provides data to scientists and informs decisions made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency, said Gary Langham, Audubon’s chief scientist in a news release.
“Because birds are early indicators of environmental threats to habitats we share, this is a vital survey,” Langham said.