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Brooksville Christmas Bird Count tallies 123 species

Birders look through the fog at Bystre Lake east of Brooksville during the Christmas Bird Count in 2008. Saturday’s count went on despite rain and found a rich diversity of birds. The Audubon Society started the count 110 years ago, when it was a Christmas tradition to shoot birds.

Times (2008)

Birders look through the fog at Bystre Lake east of Brooksville during the Christmas Bird Count in 2008. Saturday’s count went on despite rain and found a rich diversity of birds. The Audubon Society started the count 110 years ago, when it was a Christmas tradition to shoot birds.

Coffee cup in hand, I stepped out on the porch and heard, as I do nearly every morning, the call of a bobwhite quail — a call so famous and distinct even a novice like me can identify it.

But it's an increasingly rare bird and a good contribution from my son and me as we set out to take part in Saturday's Brooksville Christmas Bird Count.

Yes, "take part" not "cover," which is what I've done at least a dozen times in the past 20 years. I decided I don't want to be the guy who shows up once a year with a pad and only learns the big, obvious birds, the red-shouldered hawks and limpkins. I want to be a real birder, and I hope my teenage son might want to be one, too.

So far, the most I can say is that he didn't seem to mind joining me, though I'm not sure he sees why the sighting of one small drab bird is routine and the sighting of another that looks just about like it is a big thrill.

It is a puzzle and a point of amusement for nonbirders, but here's what it means: You've taken the time to observe.

With the bobwhite counted, we joined Debbie Grimes and Chris Cock, two veteran birders, to cover our assigned block of the Brooksville count's territory, which extends 15 miles in all directions from a point east of the city, the southern shore of Bystre Lake.

We first canvassed a field next to Powell Road, where most passing drivers see only gray, waist-high weeds. Cock said it was prime sparrow habitat; the decline of several species, including bobwhites and meadowlarks, has been blamed partly on fields overly groomed and sanitized by modern agriculture.

Sure enough we flushed 100 or so chipping sparrows, a few vespers and Savannahs, and one grasshopper, which is a lot like the other sparrows except that it has a slightly flattened skull — and it's rare enough that it justified excited shouts from Cock.

With a cold rain falling, we stopped at a cozy house where the owner, Bill Ball, had the scope on his porch set on an eagle nest in a tall pine on the horizon. We saw the nest, but no eagle, and after warming up and thanking him, drove slowly through the downpour on Old Spring Lake Road.

I've been on this rural lane a thousand times — cell tower and blueberry field on the right, orange grove on the left — and never took notice of a single, specific variety of bird. But my son soon pointed to the base of a fence post and a small yellow bird that I mistakenly thought was just another palm warbler.

No, said Grimes, clearly keyed up, "That's something better." Window down, binoculars up, and she called out one of the best birds of the day: "That's a black-throated green warbler!"

During a few more minutes of driving and walking — and with the tape of a screech owl cry to stir things up — we saw a Cooper's hawk, tufted titmouse, chickadees, downy woodpeckers and a black-and-white warbler (another good bird that my son not only saw but identified in his field guide).

There was a yellow-rumped warbler, its name describing it perfectly, and a red-bellied woodpecker, which has absolutely no red on its belly and a big Mohawk-like swath of it on its head.

Another reason for birding, or at least joining the bird count, is science. It's crowd sourcing that started 110 years ago, when a few members of the National Audubon Society thought it would be better to tally birds than to indiscriminately shoot them, which was the Christmas tradition at the time.

All that data gathered over the years has been broken into summaries, the most recent of which are available online at audubon.org. Generally, what the numbers show isn't encouraging, especially for populations of bird varieties, such as the bobwhite, that like wild or rural habitat.

But there are still a lot of birds seen every year, and that's another reason for the count. It's like running a marathon for a middle-age person, affirmation that there's still some life left despite all the degradation.

The proof came at the end of the post-count dinner held at the home of former Hernando Audubon president Mary Dowdell. Clay Black, who runs the Brooksville count, sat next to the fireplace Saturday night and went through his list of species, and the 25 or so birders still around called out if they had seen them.

The mention of a green-winged teal was followed by silence.

"That's a bad miss,'' Black said.

When the entire room said "yes'' to the Eurasian collared dove, they said it with a groan; it's an invasive species that thrives on degraded habitat.

But there were a few eagles, including one Ball called in; it had returned to the nest with a twig a few minutes after we left his house. The counters had seen wood storks, wood ducks and woodcocks, all good birds. The "yes'' to an American bittern generated a murmur of excitement, and the black-throated green drew the kind of subdued but enthusiastic cheer you might expect from a lot of Audubon members.

So did the total tally of species — 123 — which is slightly above the Brooksville count's historic average of just under 120. Just for comparison, the fact that this year's count in Kansas topped 100 species for only the second time since 1955 was cause for a headline in the Kansas City Star. The same story said 43 varieties had been tallied in northwest Missouri.

Which goes to show you the richness of bird life in Florida, especially in the wintertime, even after all these years. You just have to look.

Brooksville Christmas Bird Count tallies 123 species 12/21/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 21, 2010 8:23pm]
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