Saturday morning in Frontier Park East, 10-year-old Sadie Mehlhaff lifted the binoculars to her eyes and looked toward four birds perched on the electrical wires off by the tennis courts.
With pencil and paper pulled from her pocket, she began to draw.
“I can’t put much detail in it because the pencils are kind of dull,” she explained as she showed her drawing of a mourning dove.
It was her second drawing of the morning during the bird walk sponsored by the Hays Public Library and led by bird-watching enthusiast Henry Armknecht, of Hays.
A retired principal and science teacher, Armknecht guided the small group that had shown up at 8 a.m. through the tree-canopied park east of Main Street.
“My parents say the first words I ever put together were ‘see the bird,’ ” Armknecht said to the dozen people gathered in the parking lot.
“There are many different ways to bird watch, and one is social. A lot of my best friends I met through birdwatching,” he said. “As we’re standing here, I hear a chickadee. You bird as much with your ears as you do with your eyes. Just close your eyes now and listen, block out the traffic, do you hear that dee dee dee dee? That’s a black-capped chickadee.”
Among the 105 counties in the state, Ellis County’s bird species list is one of the largest, at 320, on the Kansas Ornithological Society’s Kansas County Checklist Project site at www.ksbirds.org, he said.
“As I listen now, I hear a red-eyed vireo, and do you hear the jay in the background?” Armknecht asks. “And house wrens are singing. As you listen you train your ear. Oh, see that red-headed woodpecker on top of the short pole there?”
Keri Maricle is a science camp instructor this summer at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History, and also teaches biology at NCK Technical College.
“There’s a kite,” said Maricle, pointing to the bird on the bare branches at the top of a tree towering over the parking lot. “It’s eating something.”
“They eat a lot of cicadas and dragon flies,” said Armknecht, sighting in his telescope on another bird in the trees along Big Creek.
“There’s a Mississippi Kite in there if you want to look at it,” he said, helping Sadie and four of her little brothers look through the lens.
“Why do you think a bird preens its feathers?” Armknecht asked 8-year-old Samuel Mehlhaff.
“To clean them,” Samuel replied. “So they fly better.”
“That’s right!” Armknecht smiled, giving Samuel a high-five.
Armknecht started bird watching about 17 years ago, and at that time Mississippi kites were rare north of Interstate 70. Now, he said, they are common. Birds of prey, they like perching high up to watch their territory and keep an eye out for food, he said, noting the hook on the kite’s bill.
After looking through the telescope, Sadie pulled out her pencil and paper and drew. Then, with pencil poised to write, asked her mom, Melissa Mehlhaff, of Ellis, “How do you spell Mississippi?”
With her binoculars ready at hand, Diana Pantl strolled amidst the park’s big cottonwood trees, as Armknecht alerted the group to listen.
“Off in the background you can hear that cheater cheater cheater cheat?” he asked. “That’s a Carolina wren. It’s bigger than a house wren and it’s here year around.”
Pantl has lived in Hays for more than a year now, moving from a town north of Denver where she volunteered at Barr Lake State Park, a birding hot spot.
“He’s fascinating to walk with,” she said of Armknecht. “I’ve never been with anybody who can identify so many birds by sound.”
The program is the first meet-up for bird watching, said Jeremy Gill, Kansas Room coordinator for the library. Earlier in the summer, Armknecht presented a couple bird programs at the library.
“We’ve been testing the waters,” said Gill. “We just want to get people involved in the outdoors. With fishing you have to have a lot of equipment, and with hunting you have a lot, but with birding you don’t … This is for everyone, whether it’s your first time out or if you’ve been doing it for 30 years.”
Today isn’t the best of days for the outing, but it will do.
“We’ve got three strikes against us today,” said Armknecht. “It’s the toughest time of the year, we’ve got hot days, and we’ve got windy days. But I just wanted to see what kind of interest there was.”
Samantha Gill, adult services manager at the library and Jeremy’s wife, asked about the oriole population.
“Jeremy mentioned to me that he’d seen an oriole. Do we have many of those here?” she asked.
“The interesting thing about birds, once you see one, then you see there are a lot more of that kind than you realized,” Armknecht said.
The Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count is a birding adventure that takes place each year, including in Hays, for meeting others who like to bird watch and for learning the different species, he said.
What’s the best way to get started bird watching?
“If you think you need to know it all to start, you will never start, so start where you are,” said Armknecht. “One of the very best things is to spend time with someone who knows more than you do.”
And look for the printed and audio books on birds and birding at the library, say the Gills.
Sternberg also offers elementary school camps that teach about birds and using binoculars, said Maricle.
The most important thing is to have fun, though, Armknecht said, throwing in another tidbit of information: Every bird has a four letter code assigned to it, originally by the U.S. Bird Banding Laboratory, like MIKI for Mississippi kite and MODO for mourning dove.
Bird watching can take many different turns, Armknecht indicated.
“I’ve driven across 13 counties in one day to birdwatch,” he said, “and I’ve also taken several hours just to go a hundred yards.”
Asked if she has a favorite bird, Sadie Mehlhaff reflects a moment.
“No, because it’s hard to choose one,” she said.
Asked which is his favorite, Armknecht answers, “the one I’m looking at.”
Saturday as he stopped to look into the trees by the creek he pointed out a Carolina wren.
“They often nest in people’s garages, gas grills and old boots,” said Armknecht. “They made a nest in my folded lawn chair on my back porch a few years ago.”