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Hernando County birders are 'citizen scientists'

Darcy Love, a birder helping out with last month's Aripeka Christmas Bird Count, spotted a cluster of ducks on a pond in Timber Pines and called on the help of — who else? — Bev Hansen.

"Hey, Bev, can you see that duck on the extreme left? It's five mallards and a something."

"That's a ring-necked (duck)," said Hansen, who has organized this outing — western Hernando County's contribution to the National Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count — since 1999.

The count is fun for birders, of course, but not just fun. Over the past 113 years, it has created the most complete historic record of the North American bird population. It's a prime example of how a hobby becomes, as birders say, "citizen science."

And Bev and Al Hansen are probably the prime local examples of volunteer ornithologists — the "king and queen of birders in Hernando County," said Murray Gardler, a Glen Lakes resident who, like the Hansens, has compiled a lifetime bird list of more than 700 species.

At first, that was the whole point, said Al Hansen, 88, a former tool and die maker and merchant seaman. After the couple retired to Timber Pines from Oregon 28 years ago, they took up birding and started piling up as many new sightings as possible. And this fascination with birds is still what gets them out every morning in a Suburu Outback loaded with binoculars, scopes and bird guides.

But somewhere along the line, these outings started to be more about accumulating knowledge than new listings.

That means organizing the Aripeka Christmas count and helping out with one in Brooksville. They take part in the annual U.S. Geological Survey's North American Breeding Bird Survey, and Bev Hansen, 74, is in the second year of serving as the local coordinator for the update of the Florida Breeding Bird Atlas, originally compiled between 1986 and 1991.

The aim of both the survey and the atlas is similar to that of the Christmas count: Spot as many birds as possible. Create a database showing changes in the populations and ranges of species.

And for most birders, this kind of census taking is pretty much it. But the Hansens have also taken on a project worthy of a professional — tracking red-cockaded woodpeckers in the Croom Tract of the Withlacoochee State Forest.

Since 1999, the Hansens have been monitoring the birds at least two mornings a week, counting chicks, recording their gender, taking note of when they leave their nests and conducting a long-term behavioral study that sounds a little like the work of famous researchers such as Jane Goodall.

Because they know their birds so well and are so careful about what they record, said Vince Morris, the state Forest Service ecologist who leads the red-cockaded recovery program, "I never have to worry about accuracy."

And whereas some helpers need hand-holding and praise, the Hansens prefer to be left alone with the woodpeckers.

"I won't say that they don't care about helping me," Morris said. "But they really love them birds."

In 1998, the population of the federally endangered species was down to one breeding pair and four solitary males.

Since then, state Forest Service workers have brought in woodpeckers from healthy populations, installed nesting cavities in the trunks of longleaf pines, and burned the forest to clear out the mid-size oaks that cause red-cockaded woodpeckers to flee for better habitat.

There are now 30 breeding pairs in Croom and, as of last summer, 135 individual birds.

Because of the time the Hansens have spent in the forest, the birds have become used to the couple's presence and don't alter their behavior, Morris said.

Partly because of this, the Hansens "have observed behaviors that have not been well documented by other people."

For example, red-cockaded woodpeckers are known for living in "clusters" — a breeding pair with one or two young adults that help raise the chicks. Not so well known, at least until the Hansens started taking note of it, is that three or four clusters sometimes meet in brief, noisy gatherings.

Is this a way of setting territorial boundaries? Is it the woodpeckers' version of a church social, visits among potential young couples chaperoned by elders?

They don't know, Bev Hansen said. They are observers, not interpreters.

Some of the other behavior they have witnessed:

• Young birds, male and female, fighting older birds for the right to be in a breeding pair.

"We never see the end of these fights. They go on for days. But if you go back to the cluster and see some other bird there, you know it won."

• Husband swapping.

Sometimes a female bird will take up with a male in a neighboring cluster, while that cluster's female will fill the vacancy the first one left behind.

"We see divorces. We see marriages. We see individuals die and other birds move in," Bev Hansen said.

• Rites of passage.

As soon as month-old birds learn to fly, an adult leads them at dusk to roost for a few nights in the crook of a tree limb about half a mile away. The idea is not to expose them to greater danger, but to take them away from predators that lurk around the nest, looking for clumsy young birds.

•Mass communication.

At the sighting of one of these predators, such as a snake or a hawk, one woodpecker in the cluster will often give a call "and every (bird) freezes. They don't move for maybe 10, 15 minutes," Bev Hansen said.

All of this information is recorded in a computer file, which, she says, is just a way to keep track of all the information she and her husband have gathered.

But if she doesn't think of it as a big contribution to science, Morris does.

"It's incredibly valuable," he said. "I'm sure lots of Ph.D. theses can be written out of that database."

Hernando County birders are 'citizen scientists' 01/03/14 [Last modified: Friday, January 3, 2014 7:22pm]

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