Steven Fickett Jr. was the best birder in the county. He helped found the Hernando County Audubon Society and, for decades, organized its annual Brooksville Christmas Bird Count.
So, nobody argued when he claimed for himself the best bird-viewing spot in the county — Bystre Lake, about 4 miles east of town.
I was lucky enough to join him for several counts there, which was like working my way through the wine list at Bern's Steak House with a wine expert.
Fickett would call out the names of species so fast that a volunteer scribbled frantically just to keep the tally. We saw large flocks of teal and the Cooper's hawks that terrorized them, bald eagles, every species of heron in my bird book, limpkins, wood storks, cormorants, ibis and egrets.
Fickett died in 2006, about the time that the amount and the quality of the water in the lake began to drop alarmingly. The Southwest Florida Water Management District has measured sky-high levels of phosphorous and nitrogen, which feed the algae and shoreline vegetation that are steadily choking the lake. Concentrations of these nutrients climbed sharply during the ongoing drought as the volume of water dropped; the center of the lake was less than a foot deep by late 2007.
When I arrived for that year's count in December, I saw hundreds of vultures perched on the bare oak limbs that I'd once seen covered with anhingas drying their wings.
For this year's Brooksville count on Saturday, I joined the crew of birders at Bystre led by longtime Audubon member Mike Liberton.
The vultures were gone, but so, too, it seemed, was the lake. Liberton and I walked more than 100 yards from the historic shoreline through a fog-shrouded landscape of frost-burned dog fennel and occasional mud holes.
"This was the lake not too long ago,'' Liberton said.
We did, eventually, see open water and a couple of greater yellowlegs, a type of sandpiper, on the shoreline. Liberton's crew had more success after the fog lifted (and I had left), and their count included a flock of 230 white pelicans.
These were among several sightings of previously rare birds that helped lift the total species count to an above-average 126. Volunteers also identified a roseate spoonbill, which is apparently expanding its range outward from a now-thriving rookery in Tampa Bay, said count organizer Clay Black.
Black was also encouraged by the continued rebound in the number of wild turkeys. With the ponds and lakes dried by the drought, the low totals of most waterfowl — including, for the first time in memory, no lesser scaup — were no surprise, Black said, and part of the natural cycle in Florida.
To compensate, birders made a greater effort to scan the woods for species of wrens and other songbirds, including the seldom-seen pine siskin, a type of finch.
Black, a veteran birder, is far more qualified to judge the health of the county's bird population than I am. His optimism, and his assurance that long-term trends can't be judged from a one-day count, made me realize my view has been skewed by my last two discouraging visits to Bystre.
Next year, I'll make sure to join another group. Maybe I'll hike through the Croom Tract of the Withlacoochee State Forest, which has seen increases in its numbers of red-cockaded woodpeckers and bobwhite quail. Or I might tour productive, popular backyard feeders with expert birder Bev Hansen, who this year saw a ruby-throated hummingbird.
But I'm still worried that Bystre, based on what I've seen and on long-term measurements of its nutrient levels and clarity, is in serious trouble. I know its bird population has plummeted in the past 20 years, and that decline is even more dramatic from the spectacular displays Fickett recalled from the 1950s and 1960s.
I can't help but think he'd be sick about it.