Checking in on Kelly McKay, Q-C bird savant

Checking in on Kelly McKay, Q-C bird savant


Yup, he's done it again.

Kelly McKay, the self-employed wildlife biologist from Hampton, Illinois, has completed another Christmas Bird Count marathon, his 11th.

As I've explained in this space before, a bird count marathon is not a 26.2-mile foot race.

It is a grueling, sleep-deprived journey McKay makes by car so that he can count birds in 23 different locations over 23 consecutive days. Sometimes he returns home for some rest at night, and sometimes he stays where he is in hotels. Either way, he averages only about three hours of sleep, relying on Pepsi to keep himself awake.

The annual count that begins on Dec. 14 and ends on Jan. 5 is sponsored by the National Audubon Society. People throughout the country count the number of birds at their feeders or out in the field at predetermined "counting circles" that are 15 miles in diameter. Different circles are assigned on different days. Over time, the data reflect trends.

McKay is the country's only known marathoner, confirmed by the Audubon Society.

His day-by-day journey for 2019-20 began in eastern Mercer County and ended in southern Clayton County in northeast Iowa. In between, he was in Davenport, Keokuk, Lost Nation, Princeton-Camanche, Clinton-Savanna, Green Island (the Bellevue-Sabula area) and northern Linn County northwest of Cedar Rapids, all in that order.

On Dec. 22 he began the southern part of his journey, arriving in Oquawka, Illinois. From there he was on to western Mercer County; Andalusia-Buffalo; Buchanan County (Iowa); Muscatine; Perry, Randolph, Alexander and Union counties in Illinois; Mermat Lake, near Paduch, Kentucky; and the middle of the Mississippi River, half Illinois, half Missouri.

On Jan. 1, he was in Jackson County, Illinois, then began making his way back north, arriving in Sterling-Rock Falls on Jan. 2, and finishing the last three days of the count in northwest Clayton County; Cassville, Wisconsin; and southern Clayton County, respectively.

When I talked to McKay last week he hadn't had time to add up his mileage because no sooner did the Christmas count end than he began doing his portion of the Mid-Winter Bald Eagle Count as well as another survey job.

KIRTLAND'S WARBLER: During a Fall Raptor Migration Watch on Sept. 28 at Eagle Point Park in Clinton, McKay spotted "the bird of the day": a Kirtland's warbler.

That made him the first person to record seeing the rare Kirtland's warbler in Iowa.

"When that happens to Kelly McKay, you've got something," said Mark Roberts, interpretive naturalist for the Clinton County Conservation Board that sponsored the watch. By that Roberts means that McKay has seen and identified so many birds that for him to have a "first" in Iowa is top-flight unusual.

Kirtland's warbler, also known as the jack pine warbler, is a small songbird named after Jared P. Kirtland, an Ohio doctor and amateur naturalist. It was nearly extinct 50 years ago and is now federally "listed" bird, one step down from being "endangered."

One of its challenges is its rigid habitat requirements for nesting: it is dependent upon fire to provide small jack pine trees trees and open areas.

How many of those kinds of spaces do you know?

ANOTHER FEATHER IN HIS CAP (AS IT WERE): A Building Better Birders program organized by Clinton County's Roberts and featuring McKay recently won "best public education program" in the state of Iowa.

The award came from the Iowa Association of Naturalists and the Iowa Conservation Education Coalition, both professional organizations.

If you area interested in seeing more kinds of birds (and learning about them), you may want to keep this program in mind for next summer when it starts up again.

Twice monthly, June through October, Roberts takes groups out on the backwaters of the Mississippi River south of Camanche in his pontoon boat called the Blue Heron, with McKay leading bird identification.

Roberts said it is not unusual to see 50 to 70 different bird species!

It's not all left to chance. McKay carries with him a recorder with every bird song known to North America, Roberts explained. When he plays a certain call, oftentimes a bird of that same type will fly in to see what's going on.

"We've had them literally land on the front of the boat," Roberts said.

Roberts calls himself a "mere mortal birder" compared to McKay. "It's unbelievable how close he can get them. Kelly is so off the charts."

The trips usually last until about 8 a.m. when the group takes a break back at the Eco-Tourism Center at Rock Creek Park. But if participants are interested in going out a little longer and Roberts and McKay have time, they will oblige.

That's what happens when people love what they do.

For more information about the boat tours, go to or call 563-259-1876.


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