By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

Where there had been 300, there were 29. Meadowlarks and grackles, in fact, outnumbered them, all thanks to a single weather system that dropped temperatures perilously close to that magical 50 degrees.

If temperatures remain above 50 degrees, the coveted local population of mourning doves will stick around. If it drops below 50, they'll head south.

It's that simple.

To be sure, doves from northern states -- Nebraska and South and North Dakota -- will stream into Kansas as well, but they're shunned by many, the meat hardened by the flight in.

The morning drives to work have long been my measure of population for doves, and prior to Aug. 25, when that cool front swooped in, they were plentiful.

As in hundreds of them.

Two days after the cool front, and only a few days before the proverbial Sept. 1 opening of hunting season, they were down to a paltry few. On the eve of opening day, I could count them on one hand.

My hopes were dashed. I had so wanted to pick up my 5 gallon bucket, a couple boxes of shells and park it on the banks of the drought-ravaged pond I live by.

I simply knew I couldn't miss.

After all, the birds were thick, the spotty water would beckon them and surely, I reasoned, my aim would hold true on at least a few birds.

I already had the bacon in the freezer for wrapping the tiny, but oh so tasty, dove breasts that surely would cook to perfection on my grill.

Yes, I was counting my birds before they were shot.

I do that every year, and rarely am I wrong. I know my limits, at least as far as my shooting ability is concerned.

Or, I should say, I know how talented mourning doves are in dodging the thousands of pellets I toss at them each year.

While many target shooters calculate the wind and distance for setting their sights, the primary variables I use on hunting doves are more basic:

* Is it dry?

* Has it dropped below 50 degrees?

* Is the damnable Kansas wind blowing in excess of 50 mph on opening day?

If the latter variable is true, I stay home and watch some mind-numbing television program, you know, like the local weather report that all but glosses over the western part of the state.

The other two factors simply tell me how successful my hunts will be.

But with scattered reports (including one from the TV meteorologist, which naturally proved to be in error) of temperatures dipping below 50, I was fearful of a season that could have been great, should have been great, but most likely will be marginal.

But it was so close.

* * *

As it turned out, after fighting mosquitoes for what seemed like an eternity, I relented and doused myself with bug spray before heading out to the better-than-half-filled pond.

Sitting on my trusty bucket, I waited. And waited. And waited.

Another mosquito decided to dine on me, as a few shots could be heard on the horizon.

A single dove slipped past me, coming in over my right shoulder. I never had a chance for a shot

But just then a rock pigeon, the bane of grain elevators and stores with overhangs, happened by. I laid him on the ground with a single shot.

So I moved my bucket. And waited. And waited. And waited some more.

Granted, I was delighted with the bullfrogs that sat motionless in the shallow edges of the pond, or the turtles that popped their heads out of the water to look about and grab a breath of air.

The dragonflies, however, were astounding, flitting about in huge numbers. What that means, I'm not sure, but it was quite a sight.

Unlike the doves, of course.

There were a dozen or so sitting on a power line, conveniently out of range.

After 40 minutes, I'd had enough, picking up my bucket and headed back to the vehicle.

I had my answer, and it wasn't good. We had such amazing prospects for a good season and Mother Nature frittered it all away, delivering it instead to points south.

That doesn't mean, however, that I won't be back up at the pond.

Next time though, I'll be bringing the camera, as the frogs, turtles and dragonflies were immensely more impressive than the doves.

A single outing almost makes me wish I hadn't spent $2.50 on a HIP stamp. My harvest information won't be worth diddly-squat, just as the hunting wasn't either.