It’s 15 degrees above zero in early February. Bob Janssen is standing in a Renville County crop field, counting birds.
As enthusiastic as he is about birds, Janssen is there only because someone is paying him to do this.
He has been working on this survey project since last summer, identifying and counting birds as part of an environmental study. Information collected will be used in consideration of wind generator placement. Janssen will count birds through August.
The surveys are being conducted by WEST Inc., environmental and statistical consultants based in Cheyenne, Wyo., with an office in Golden Valley.
On a cellphone call on that February day, Bob said he was exactly what you might expect — cold and bored. Early February on what Janssen calls Minnesota’s black desert is not a good time to see birds.
That day his list held crows, one redpoll, one chickadee, one pheasant and some pigeons. Cold and boring.
He told me that in the fall it was somewhat better. He had seen mostly vesper and savannah sparrows.
Janssen has driving to Renville County for over a year. He makes monthly counts from each of 17 GPS points. He visits each point for 70 minutes. For 60 minutes he counts large birds, mourning doves and up. Ten minutes are for smaller birds.
Todd Mattson, a senior ecologist with WEST, told me that Janssen’s data will become part of a report analyzing avian use of the projected project site. WEST’s client is a renewable energy company.
“We focus on birds and bats,” he said, “to help companies understand how these animals use the area under consideration.
“The project Bob worked on covers all seasons, with emphasis on migration,” Mattson said. The data will help the client meet federal and state environmental regulations in both siting and operation.
There is a particular emphasis on bald eagles, Mattson said. “Federal protections make eagles important.”
Last summer Janssen found a bald eagle nest containing three chicks tended by one adult. He then spent one hour per week for several weeks plotting eagle flight patterns.
Renville County is in the swath of Minnesota, southeast corner to northwest corner, that was tall-grass prairie before European settlement. What’s left is cropland, drainage ditches (home to common yellowthroats and Brewer’s blackbirds) and edges of whatever.
Birding gets better on field edges and in adjoining farm yards, Janssen said.
Settlers planted trees for shelter from the wind, for firewood, and perhaps for emotional comfort. These farm woodlots hold bird species for which, it appears, any habitat is enough habitat. Last summer he even heard an eastern screech-owl calling from a woodlot.
State and federal governments and game bird and environmental conservation groups have worked to maintain or create prairie and marsh. These pieces of habitat are relatively small in number and total acreage, but they are significant.
There are birds out there, and they need to be recognized.
WEST has done research for many wind generation projects in Minnesota, mostly in the southern tier of counties, Mattson told me. Studies usually last 12 or 24 months, with visits to each designated point at least once a month.
Janssen has been birding throughout the state for over 60 years. He said he has watched massive land-use changes. There are counties, such as his survey location, that are cropland edge to edge.
Meadowlarks, grassland birds, can be used as a measuring stick, Janssen said. On this job last spring, he told me he had not seen a single meadowlark. But at least someone was looking for them.
Read Jim Williams’ birding blog at startribune.com/wingnut.