... and other perils of the Christmas Bird Count
On Saturday, Dec. 20, David Malueg, his son Zak, brother Christopher and Christopher’s children Henry, Eva and Charlie were in the field by 12:30 a.m. to start the Riveredge Christmas Bird Count searching for owls in the Fredonia and Waubeka area.
“We heard three or four screech owls right away, but we kept calling because we wanted the little kids to see an owl,” Malueg said.
“One screech owl dive bombed us, just like last year.
Henry asked if it was the same one, and it probably was. We also heard great-horned owls. That was the first time I heard some of the smallest and largest owls at the same time.”
About 2 a.m., the group went back to Malueg’s Oostburg home to sleep for a few hours, with all intending to get up at 6 a.m. to continue the bird count.
“We couldn’t rouse the kids, so it was just Zak, Christopher and I who went out,” Malueg said.
It was a good morning. They saw two tufted titmice — one at a feeder and another in a tree — and a flock of snow geese flying in a V-formation.
“We saw two things we had never seen before,” Malueg said. “That was awesome. We tried to do some pileated woodpecker calls because they are in the area, but no luck.”
Malueg used online resources to identify the snow geese and the tufted titmice, which they initially thought were chickadees.
After a long lunch break, the team, including the children, headed out again about 2:30 p.m., searching for birds until dark. They then went to Riveredge Nature Center in the Town of Saukville to have their tallies entered into the center’s data base.
This year, the Malueg team heard or saw 27 bird species, about 10 fewer than most years, and 1,164 individual birds.
“You make educated guesses,” Malueg said. “When you see a flock of starlings, you make the best guess (at the number) you can. It’s kind of a guessing game.”
Malueg, 47, hasn’t missed a Christmas bird count at Riveredge since 1981, when he was 14 and went on his first count with Charlie Mayhew, a longtime Riveredge volunteer and environmentalist.
Malueg’s best friend at the time, Jim Kruse, went with Andy Larsen, who started the Riveredge Christmas count in 1976 when he became executive director of the nature center.
They went on owl prowls shortly after midnight.
“Charlie and Andy taught me how to do barred owl calls,” said Malueg, who later learned screech and great-horned owl calls.
Malueg and Kruse went on bird counts with their mentors for a couple years, learning to recognize and do a variety of bird calls.
When the boys got their driver’s licenses, they asked for their own section — a circle that starts at Highway A near Waubeka, extends north to Huiras Lake, then south to Holy Cross and back to Waubeka. Malueg still canvasses that area.
Kruse’s sister and brother-in-law Sherri and Stan Collins went with them for several years because the boys’ parents thought they were too young to be out at 1 a.m. without an adult.
So did the police, who questioned their motives many times.
“I think people see us driving around, stopping and getting out and think we’re casing the joint, so they call the police,” Malueg said.
“We tell them we’re just looking for owls or birds, and they say, ‘Sure you are. What are you really doing?’ We have to show them the bird count papers to convince them. We always make sure we have the papers in the vehicle or with us.”
After Kruse moved to Alaska, he came back for a couple of bird counts, but basically the team broke up. Kruse now lives in Colorado and told Malueg he wants to join him next year.
Malueg’s brother, who lives in Madison, joined the team and it’s been mostly family ever since.
Their father Gerald Malueg was principal of Ozaukee High School for many years, but the family lived in the Random Lake School District, so the brothers graduated from Random Lake High School.
David Malueg is so dedicated to the count, he left his 26th birthday party and his fiancée Victoria, now his wife, to go on the bird count. His birthday is Dec. 18.
Victoria had planned a surprise party, but Malueg found out about it and decided to surprise her instead by proposing at the party.
“She was floored, and that obviously changed the focus of the party. After a couple of hours, I said, ‘I have to leave now for the bird count,’” Malueg said.
Victoria joined him on several counts, but prefers staying at home, making a big pot of chili to warm them up.
Several friends have joined the team, but they usually decide it’s too cold and rarely return, Malueg said.
“This was the warmest count I can remember,” Malueg said. “I didn’t even put on my heavy winter jacket. The first couple of years, it was 15 below zero and the wind was howling.
“You love it (the count) and hate it at the same. It’s become a family thing.”
When Zak, a music education major at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, was 13, he joined his father and uncle. He hasn’t missed a count since.
“Usually, we’re cracking bad jokes and laughing it up. Christopher is the comedian of the family,” Malueg said. “I think Zak likes seeing his uncle and father in a different light. It’s become like a religious thing for us.”
Image information: Screech owls are small but feisty. One seen on the Riveredge Christmas Bird Count dive bombed veteran birder brothers Christopher (left) and David Malueg and David’s son Zak. Photo by Sam Arendt