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Brooksville Christmas Bird Count's duck tally falls off for all the wrong reasons

While Hernando Audubon Society members count birds on Saturday as part of a national census, birder Mike Liberton peers through a scope near Bystre Lake, east of Brooksville.

DAN DEWITT | Times

While Hernando Audubon Society members count birds on Saturday as part of a national census, birder Mike Liberton peers through a scope near Bystre Lake, east of Brooksville.

To keep this report on Saturday's Brooksville Christmas Bird Count from being a complete downer, I did manage to dig up some good news.

The small crew of birders I joined spotted 65 white pelicans — a not especially rare but always spectacular bird — in a pool of standing water off Mondon Hill Road.

A snow goose here is a rare sight, and the one tallied this year was the first seen on a Christmas count in eastern Hernando County since 1989.

And this was the first Brooksville count ever that included both a rufous hummingbird and a ruby-throated hummingbird.

But is this really good news? Maybe not.

Most hummingbirds historically have migrated to Central America. That more of them have found they can comfortably winter this far north is a possible sign of a warming climate.

Which may have also been a factor in the worst news about the count.

"We needed a few more ducks," Clay Black, the organizer of the count for the Hernando Audubon Society, said as he finished the initial tally at the countdown dinner Saturday evening.

The total of 115 species counted Saturday was about five fewer than the historical average, a shortfall due mostly to the lack of waterfowl species, including the ruddy duck and green-winged teal, which in some earlier counts have been tallied by the dozen.

Sadly, this seems to be a trend.

The Brooksville count has been held every year since 1979. I averaged the tallies of some of the most common duck species from roughly the first half of this period — the years before 1996 — and compared it with the average of the years since then, or at least until 2011, the most recent year for which complete results are available.

The tally of wood ducks averaged 191 before 1996 and 49 since. The mean totals of blue-winged teal dropped from 142 to 57. And, most dramatically, birders counted an average of 617 ring-necked ducks in the early years of the count and only 88 since.

Even with more than three decades of data, this is an extremely small sample, one that probably doesn't have much scientific value — except that it matches the results of a much larger study published by Audubon in 2009.

That study found a definite northern shift in the range of many bird species, including waterfowl such as ring-necked ducks, which had drifted north 219 miles since 1966.

"Audubon's analysis confirms the anecdotal evidence of bird enthusiasts who have frequently reported changing populations filling their skies," the study's authors wrote.

So is it possible that, with a warming climate, more ducks simply don't need to fly all the way to Florida in the winter?

Sure, said several birders I talked to, though it's certainly not the only cause for declining duck numbers.

For this year's count, the weather of the last few weeks was a lot more important than any long-term pattern; it just hasn't been cold enough to drive ducks south. We'll probably see a lot more ducks later in the winter, said Bev Hansen, a longtime member of Hernando Audubon.

Hansen also pointed out that, for whatever reason, droughts have been more frequent in recent years, meaning less standing water for ducks. And not only has the amount of water been generally declining in Bystre Lake, a once-famous mecca for ducks and birders east of Brooksville, but so has the quality.

Finally, it's not just the number of ducks that has dropped over the years; so has the number of birders working the Brooksville count.

"I looked around at the countdown dinner and saw only one person younger than me," said Black, 55. "And that concerns me."

More birders, and more birders who have time to scout out the best locations before the count, generally mean more birds. And it's worth noting that West Pasco has seen no decline in duck tallies over the past 20 years. That count is led by Ken Tracey, "who is almost a full-time birder," Black said.

We used to have an even more famous birder running the Brooksville count, Steve Fickett, who died in 2006.

One reason I decided to make coverage of the count an annual event was the experience of standing on the southern shores of Bystre with Fickett more than 20 years ago, watching the flocks of teal and wood ducks descend so fast that the main challenge was coming up with descriptions for their large numbers.

Were they rafts of ducks? Were they flotillas? Did they fill the sky like clouds?

This year, standing in the same spot, next to the still, soupy water in the fog, we didn't see the first true duck until 10:30 a.m. And describing vast numbers was the last thing on my mind.

Brooksville Christmas Bird Count's duck tally falls off for all the wrong reasons 12/18/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 18, 2012 6:46pm]
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