RIVERVIEW — To most people, the dark head and narrow bill popping up between ripples of wind-whipped water was just another in the thousands of birds — 5,000, to be approximate — that were fishing, roosting, squawking, preening, fluttering or winging lazily through the sky above Hillsborough Bay last weekend.
For a band of birders on the first weekend of Audubon's 113th annual Christmas Bird Count, it was a triumph.
"Loon! Loon! Loon! Loon!" shouted Mark Rachal, Florida Audubon's coastal islands sanctuary manager and boat pilot, prompting a cheer that in another setting would have been fitting for a call of "Land, ho!"
It also set off a jubilant chorus of puns, as other common loons that had not been so common here suddenly appeared Sunday near the Apollo Beach Nature Park and drove the count up to five.
"We're loony," said Melanie Higgins, vice president of Audubon's Sun City Center chapter, as she documented each sighting on a data sheet.
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Spotting and counting birds during a warm Florida winter is a little like playing a find-the-hidden-object game, testing keenness of eye, memory and recognition skills.
From now until Jan. 5, avian aficionados, expert and amateur, will play the game in 10 defined territories in the Tampa Bay area, each spanning 15 miles in diameter, to count birds and identify as many species as possible.
The count here will be added to totals across the United States, Canada and Latin America. Last year, 63,000 people participated. In Florida, about 3.5 million birds representing 345 species were counted.
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The Audubon Christmas Bird Count began more than a century ago as an effort to shift human competitive instincts from bagging birds for sport to simply beholding and cataloging them.
No final tallies for Tampa Bay's first weekend were available this week, but compiler Dave Bowman said Tampa's results were coming in high at about 164 species and Pinellas County teams reported about 162.
"Anything above 150 is excellent," he said.
Florida Audubon's waterborne team was hoping to top the nearly 160 species logged last year in the waters from the mouth of the Alafia River south to Apollo Beach. That helped put the team fourth in Florida and 65th among the almost 2,250 teams reporting counts to the National Audubon Society.
"It's definitely a competition," Rachal said, scouting a pair of spoil islands (near the Mosaic fertilizer plant) considered a nationally significant bird sanctuary.
Known as the Alafia Banks, the site opened its winter coffers Sunday to the birders who came armed with binoculars and field guides, including Sibley's, Peterson and National Geographic.
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Bird names flew across the Florida Audubon boat almost as fast as the fowl above: white pelican, brown pelican, red knot, reddish egret, black-bellied plover, yellow-crowned night herons, little blue herons, great blue herons, blue-winged teal and, yes, at one point, a blue jay sitting in someone's back yard on the shore.
Of course, there were gulls, gulls, gulls: laughing, herring, ring-billed and maybe even a Bonaparte's gull.
"It takes an expert eye to see the Bonaparte," Rachal said.
Carol Cassels, Audubon's longtime seasonal warden, thought she saw one flying with some other gulls, but she and Rachal couldn't be sure.
"They almost look like a tern," Cassels said. "They're so small and dainty."
Certainly, there were godwits, willets, dowitchers, whimbrels, sanderlings, sandpipers, dunlins and scaups. Royal terns and ruddy turnstones also made the list.
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That doesn't mean spotting the birds was easy. At times, Rachal nosed the boat close to shore to peer into the mangrove roots, where a spotted sandpiper and later a night heron turned up. Rachal and Cassels had started the day on foot, counting ducks, pigeons, ospreys and an eagle along freshwater ponds near the river.
Also on the team was Thomas Farrell, a retired biologist who has been active with Tampa Audubon for three years.
"It's just a great experience," he said of the bird count. "You meet interesting people, and you see beauty that most people aren't even aware of."
The boat was abuzz with chatter about some razorbills, a bird in the puffin family rarely seen as far south as Florida, spotted at nearby Anna Maria Island to the south and Honeymoon Island in Pinellas County. Rachal thought a sighting in Hillsborough Bay was possible, but it didn't happen Sunday.
"That's the thing that's got everybody in a twitter," he said, noting that birding websites were carrying updates. "It's a bird we've never recorded in the Christmas Bird Count."
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A few not-so-common birds turned up: the horned grebe, two snowy plovers, a long-billed curlew, a Hudsonian godwit and two red-breasted mergansers.
The Christmas count retains its original purpose of getting people interested in wildlife conservation, but it also generates valuable data.
For example, conspicuously missing in the freshwater ponds of the Alafia territory this year were limpkins. Likewise, the team looked in vain for a bird expected to forage on the bay shore, the green heron.
Rachal conceded that those species have been spotted elsewhere in Central Florida. But biologists like to track such trends because loss of any habitat reduces the chance of a species' long-term survival.
"A wider distribution is always better for the birds," Rachal said. "If anything impacted one area, they can move to another area."
There was also a sad moment when Rachal cut down a dead pelican, snagged in a tree by monofilament fishing line, which remains one of the biggest perils for coastal birds in Florida.
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Anyone can participate in the count, but it helps to tag along with seasoned bird-watchers, who not only rely on markings and colors to identify birds, but flight patterns, movement, and bird calls.
"Look at the bill, the length of the leg and the habitat," Cassels said.
At dusk, the ubiquitous fish crow distinguished itself by flocking down the Alafia River 7,500 strong on the way to a nighttime island roost, and Rachal bagged the data sheet.
"I think we got all that we could hope to get."
Susan Marschalk Green can be reached at [email protected]