2016-12-21 / Top News

117th Christmas count is for the birds

Florida Weekly Correspondent

The count is held each year around Christmas. 
COURTESY IMAGE The count is held each year around Christmas. COURTESY IMAGE A partridge in a pear tree, two turtledoves and three French hens have little to do with the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count.

The same is certainly true of four calling birds, six geese a laying and seven swans a swimming, all mentioned in that enduring carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

Like the song, which dates to 18th century England, the Audubon event is also a tradition with a long history. It started in 1900 and is held throughout the Western

Hemisphere, including up and down Florida’s east and west coasts.

Birders all over North and South America participate, including hundreds in Florida, traipsing through woods and beaches and parks seeking, sighting and recording what they see.

The event goes on for more than the 12 days of Christmas — it began Dec. 14 and concludes Jan. 5. Local Audubon groups choose their own dates.

Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count runs through Thursday, Jan. 5. It began in 1900 and is held throughout the Western Hemisphere. 
CAMILLA CEREA/AUDUBON PHOTO Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count runs through Thursday, Jan. 5. It began in 1900 and is held throughout the Western Hemisphere. CAMILLA CEREA/AUDUBON PHOTO Each count is conducted within a 15-mile diameter circle. The Peace River Audubon count in Charlotte County was held Dec. 17 with the center point being roughly around downtown Punta Gorda. The circle was divided into 12 areas scattered around Charlotte County.

The birders are busy on these counts. Tony Licata of Peace River Audubon said that despite windy weather last year, more than 50 birders spent more than 300 hours on the Christmas Bird Count. They counted by, he said, “foot, car, cart or boat, and covered over 500 miles by land and sea.”

Their 2015 bird count of 23,272 was down only 4 percent, despite windy weather, from the 24,172 recorded in 2014.

The Peace River group counted 133 species last year, which was an increase of 6 percent over the previous year.

Mr. Licata said the group is always looking for more species and more birders.

“The more people we have out counting the more accurate our survey of the birds in our area will be,” Mr. Licata said in an email.

That’s the case with all Christmas Bird Count locales.

It’s certainly the case across the state from Punta Gorda, with the West Palm Beach Christmas Bird Count, which is scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 31. Chuck Weber coordinates the West Palm Beach count.

“If you are a birder it’s part of your family tradition,” said Mr. Weber, a veteran birder and WPEC-TV news reporter.

The count isn’t a lark, if you’ll excuse the pun. As Florida becomes more and more urbanized, less open land is available for birds and birders.

“That makes it a challenge,” Mr. Weber said.

As with counts run by Audubon groups everywhere, careful records are kept in West Palm. In 2015, for example, Mr. Weber recalls 67 birders participated and they were divided into 15 to 20 teams and assigned territory within the circle.

They tallied 139 species and nearly 21,000 birds, according to Mr. Weber. The most sighted bird was the White Ibis, which clocked in with about 3,500 views.

What about the 2016 count?

“We hope to improve upon last year’s totals, which were probably about average for our count the past 20 years,” Mr. Weber said. “Weather conditions and available habitat always factor into our totals.”

The counts aren’t random events with birders thrashing madly about in the woods. On a www.audubon.org page dedicated to the event, birders and even curious non-birders can read that there is a “specific methodology to” the count. Birders follow designated routes and are instructed to count every bird they see or hear during the day.

That’s also the case with the four count circles in Collier County. Ana Jonas, the director of the Naples Circle, said there are also circles in the county based around Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park and the Ten Thousand Islands.

Ms. Jonas said the most abundant species her group spotted in 2015 was the laughing gull with about 3,000 counted. The next most abundant species found in the Naples Circle last year, according to Ms. Jonas, were European starlings, white ibis and fish crows. More than 1,000 of each were counted.

Ms. Jonas, the compiler for the Naples Circle, added that 115 species were identified and 19,100 individual birds were counted or estimated. All that counting required many hours of work. Ms. Jonas said Naples Circle volunteers invested 118 hours and “covered 42 miles on foot, 311 miles by car, 13 miles by boat, and 23 miles by golf cart.”

But the Audubon Christmas Bird Count is about more than counting and even more than science.

“It is a wonderful outdoor activity, including the thrill of an occasional rare find, and the knowledge that one is making a meaningful contribution to the science and knowledge of birds,” Ms. Jonas, a biochemistry professor at the University of Illinois, said in an email.

That’s the case with the Orange River Circle in Lee County, where all sorts of birders are welcome for the Dec. 28 count, according to leader Don Doggett. One certainly doesn’t need to be an ornithologist to take part.

Who can participate?

“Recreational birders like me,” Mr. Doggett said.

But the diligence of recreational birders such as Mr. Doggett aids scientists, according to the Audubon website.

“The data collected by CBC (Christmas Bird Count) participants over the past century and more have become one of only two large pools of information informing ornithologists and conservation biologists how the birds are faring over time,” the website notes.

Mr. Doggett added that accuracy is of the utmost importance.

“If anybody says they see an ivory billed woodpecker that might raise some flags,” Mr. Doggett said.

That species of woodpecker might be extinct but birders and scientist hope it survives somewhere. So a sighting in Lee County or anywhere would certainly cause excitement.

But the primary goal isn’t locating an elusive and possibly extinct species. It’s the counting and something else.

“It’s good to be outside this time of year,” Mr. Doggett said.

And it’s also on the case on Sanibel and Captiva islands, where Bill Jacobson is the count leader.

“I’m kind of the guru of the bird count,” Mr. Jacobson said.

The epicenter of the Sanibel count might be the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge.

“One of the top three birding places in the country,” Mr. Jacobson said.

Topping the wish list for many participants in the Sanibel count, he said, is the roseate spoonbill.

“It’s the one they want to see,” Mr. Jacobson said.

The Audubon Field Guide describes roseate spoonbills as “Gorgeous at a distance and bizarre up close.”

Finding many species in the refuge is not difficult, even for the newest birders.

“Just by driving through ‘Ding’ Darling,” Mr. Jacobson said.

He added that 70 percent of Sanibel is one sort of preserve or another, which enhances it as a birding destination.

And what about the birds in the famous Christmas carol, things such as partridges in pear trees? Are any birders looking for one of those birds?

“Not that I’m aware of,” Mr. Doggett said.

The Christmas carol has evolved musically over time and so has the Audubon Christmas Bird Count.

In the late 19th century, according to a history on the Audubon website, the event was born of something called a Christmas “Side Hunt.”

Back then, guns were used to hunt and shoot species. It was in 1900 that an ornithologist named Frank Chapman suggested something different — a Christmas Bird Census.

The first one in 1900 included 27 birders.

Now, 116 years later, the Christmas Bird Count lives on, including all over Florida, by far more than 27 birders. ¦

For the birds

>> Some Christmas bird counts have already been held, but one in West Palm Beach and two in Southwest Florida are happening in the coming days.

>> If you’re interested in the West Palm Beach count, which happens Dec. 31, contact Charles Weber at cweber4aves@comcast.net. For the Dec. 31 Naples count, contact Ana Jonas at a-jonas@illinois.edu. And for the Orange River Southwest Florida circle count, Dec. 28, contact Don Doggett at dwdoggett@yahoo.com.

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