The Quad-City area just might lead the state of Iowa in the number of bird species counted - 91 - during the annual Christmas Bird Count.
That's the prediction of Kelly McKay, a field biologist from Hampton who co-compiled the numbers. He attributes the high number to an unusual abundance of waterfowl and other water birds that stayed because of our mild winter.
"For the last decade, the highest (species) count usually flip-flops between Keokuk and Saylorville (Iowa)," he said. "But this year, if we're not No. 1, we'll probably be No. 2."
Waterfowl are ducks, geese and swans; water birds are an assortment of pelicans, herons, cormorants, gulls and coots. When the weather is colder and open water freezes over, those birds move out to areas east and south of here, he said.
The Christmas census of bird populations has been conducted nationally for 112 years under the auspices of the National Audubon Society. On designated days in December and January, volunteers count birds at feeders and in the field, taking note of both numbers and species. Over time, the data reflect trends.
In the Quad-City region, there are eight different field counting areas, each encompassing an expanse of about 177 square miles.
This year's count had some other noteworthy observations, too.
-- Not so many robins. In 2011, there was an abundance of robins. Even non-birdwatchers noticed it. McKay attributed the high numbers to a warmer climate in which so-called semi-hardy species such as robins are expanding their winter range farther north.
But robins also need food, and two sources - honeysuckle berries and hackberries - were not so abundant this year, McKay said. The juniper berry crop was good, but the relative failure of the other two may explain why there weren't so many robins, he said. However, "no one knows for sure," he added.
-- Most unusual: palm warbler and rufous hummingbird. A palm warbler normally would be in South America at this time of year, and a roufus hummingbird usually would not be in this area at all because the Quad-City region is out of its range no matter the season, McKay said.
The hummingbird was at a feeder in Sterling, Ill., that the homeowners kept up even when the weather got cold. (People often take hummingbird feeders down to encourage migration.)
-- More Eurasian tree sparrows. These are an invasive species introduced from China in 1870, and their normal range has been farther south, such as St. Louis. But they are becoming increasingly numerous in the Quad-City region, said Steve Hager, an associate professor of biology at Augustana College in Rock Island and a co-compiler of the data.
The problem is that "like many invasives, they compete with natural populations for resources, such as food and shelter," he said. "They are also known to displace cavity-nesting species such as eastern bluebirds. But the house sparrow (another invasive from further back in time) may limit their success."
-- 12,000 red-winged blackbirds: These birds need marshes as night-roosting sites in winter, and in recent years, as Quad-City marshes have been filled for development, the number of these birds was down.
But this year, McKay and his field party counted almost 12,000 in the marshy area between Barstow and East Moline. The area is being eyed for development, though, he added.
Sometimes the Christmas count yields wonders aside from birds.
"The coolest thing we saw was a meteor shower," Janelle Swanberg, the president of the Quad-City chapter of the National Audubon Society, said of her Jan. 4 count in the Andalusia area.
"We were standing in the cold and the still, looking up, hoping to hear an owl, when we saw all these meteors. It was a fun day. It's always fun."