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Binoculars around his neck, checklist in his pocket, Bob Janssen stepped carefully along the southern edge of Painter Marsh in Minnetrista, scanning the early-morning sky.
As he picked his way through dried, 9-foot-tall ragweed and bleached reed canary grass, he stopped occasionally to make a pishing sound with his mouth to attract birds.
First came a downy woodpecker. Then a variety of other curious birds, some of them migrants. White-throated sparrows, yellow-rumped warblers, ruby-crowned kinglets, fox sparrows and swamp sparrows and song sparrows.
Janssen, 79, has been watching and listing birds like this for more than six decades and has visited every county in the state.
What he sees, or, in some cases doesn't see, alarms him.
Janssen said he has seen a "tremendous decline" in many of their populations, particularly in the 35 warbler species that nest in or migrate through the state.
"We're taking up more of their habitat, so they're retreating in numbers," he said.
His conclusions are similar to those of thousands of other birders: Many species of both common and uncommon birds in North America are in serious trouble.
From Janssen's perspective, more refuges, wildlife areas and open space for the birds' winter homes, migration paths and breeding places will help stop the decline.
Janssen, who lives in Chanhassen, is a self-described "citizen birder," not an ornithologist. He has compiled more than 175,000 records of his observations in the state's 87 counties, and he has spent the past two years transferring them to spreadsheets for the Minnesota Ornithologists' Union, a state birding club.
Individually, a birder's report of what is seen on one day in one place is of little value. But what is observed year after year in different seasons can suggest trends -- and occasionally may be startling.
For example, Janssen has traveled the same 25-mile route near Lakeville in Dakota County once every June since 1968, stopping every half-mile for 3 minutes to identify and list the birds he sees and hears. "I've done it for so long, my car almost knows where to stop," he joked.
On his survey near Lakeville, Janssen said he heard western meadowlarks at 48 of the 50 stops in 1972. The numbers began to dwindle over the years, and this year he didn't record any. "That whole area around Lakeville has become totally urbanized," he said, and meadowlarks just aren't nesting there any more.
Janssen and meadowlarks have a long history.
When he was 5, learning to ride a bicycle in Edina, he flushed up a meadowlark and that sparked his lifelong fascination with birds. At age 8, when he went into the hospital to have his tonsils removed, his parents knew how to reward him. "They gave me a $10 book called 'Birds of America' and I read it through about eight times," he said.
Godfather of birding
In the 1980s Janssen bought a set of county maps for the entire state, and he visited every named place on them -- 1,836 cities, towns and villages. "I decided if I went to all of those I'd be sure to find some new places to bird in Minnesota," he said.
Unlike professional ornithologists and scientists, Janssen and a handful of others in the 1950s were a different breed: middle-class workers who spent their weekends chasing around the state to see how many birds they could spot.
"I'm a compulsive lister of birds," he said. "My main interest is in the distribution of birds, where you find them and how many you find."
Along the way, Janssen wrote three books about birding in Minnesota and edited "The Loon," the journal of the Minnesota Ornithologists' Union, for 38 years.
For birding columnist and blogger Jim Williams, Janssen is simply the "godfather of birding in Minnesota."
Kim Eckhert, who holds the state record for seeing the most species of birds in Minnesota -- at 406, only three more than second-place Janssen -- said that having historical information about where birds occur in Minnesota is invaluable.
"You can see what it was like in the 1950s or 1980s, and how it's different today, and act accordingly, if you can," Eckhert said. Amateur birders can draw attention to declining species, he said, which may prompt federal or state natural resource agencies to protect key habitat, or even to reintroduce species, like they did for the once-threatened peregrine falcon.
Janssen said that his long-term observations also show that many migrating birds, such as loons and warblers, are arriving about a week earlier each spring and leaving later each fall, which he attributes to climate change. That may cause trouble, he said, if the fish and insects they depend upon are not available.
Three years after he retired in 1994, Janssen got a call from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, asking if he knew anyone who could be hired part time to count the number of bird species in parks. He quickly recommended himself. "It took me about a nanosecond to say that, and it led to 10 years of bird surveys and creating bird lists for all 72 state parks," he said. Janssen also is working with others to create bird lists for many of the DNR's 135 scientific and natural areas and has completed about 50 so far. Similar work for the Minnehaha Watershed District will provide information about birds for the public, and it may guide how the land or some of its plants and trees will be managed in the future.
Last week, he was near the shores of Lake Mille Lacs on a snowy, windy morning as he viewed migrating tundra swans and a variety of ducks: buffleheads, greater and lesser scaups, scoters and goldeneyes. He is in his fourth year of doing bird surveys for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. Enthusiastic about seeing so many waterfowl, he said that good environmental quality and healthy bird populations go hand in hand, but he's concerned about the larger trends of human development across the landscape.
Birds that can adapt to live with humans are doing well, he said, such as Canada geese, crows and even bald eagles. However, the majority of species are in jeopardy or moving in that direction.
"We're controlling the evolutionary process of what's going on in this planet," Janssen said. "We're in control of whether a lot of these birds will exist."
Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388