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Hernando bird count's little things slowly adding up to big trouble

It's the environment's annual checkup, and it's the same for the bird population as it is for most of us: The accumulated damage of bad habits is a little more apparent each year, and the news usually get a little worse.

Not disastrous, mind you. Not yet.

The number of species counted during the 32nd annual Brooksville Christmas Bird Count on Dec. 17 was 121 — one more than the historic average. Three days later, the Aripeka count, which takes in a large swath of western Hernando and Pasco counties, yielded 151 bird varieties.

"We always hope to get at least 150, and we just squeaked by," said Bev Hansen, the Hernando Audubon Society member who helped organize the Aripeka count.

More not-so-bad news from the county's two counts:

Granted more access to the shoreline of Bystre Lake, east of Brooksville, birders saw an impressive number of brown pelicans. The recent warm weather has left more flying insects and therefore more insect-eating tree swallows.

In the Weekiwachee Preserve, volunteers counted 15 Le Conte's sparrows, "which is a very respectable number, maybe the highest ever," Hansen said.

She confirmed the sighting of a ruby-throated hummingbird at her feeder in Timber Pines. And a flock of more than 600 migratory sandhill cranes was seen at Pasco's Crews Lake, part of the territory covered by the Aripeka count.

What is the likelihood of future robust counts of sandhills now that, as you may have read, game officials in Kentucky have approved a hunting season for the birds? Who knows?

And that gives you an idea where the rest of this report is heading, because a lot of what the birders saw was worrying, if not downright grim.

As recently as 20 or 30 years ago, Bystre was a magnet for migratory waterfowl, commonly yielding counts in the hundreds for species such as ring-necked ducks.

This year, said Mike Liberton, who led the team at Bystre, "we saw almost no ducks. I think all we got were four wood ducks."

His small group's tally of species, 78, was respectable, he said, "but in a lot of cases we just got one of each: one bald eagle, when we usually get several; one osprey, which should be pretty common."

"Just in general you notice that there were a lot of birds that we saw all the time and we just don't get anymore, or get very few of," said Chris Cock, whom I briefly joined for the Brooksville count as she led a team working the fields near Powell Road.

"We used to always see a lot of loggerhead shrike, and now we hardly see any. You just don't get the numbers you used to."

Almost as bothersome as where the birds aren't, Liberton said, is where they are. The count includes quite a bit of "big-box birding," scanning retention ponds in gated communities and at strip malls.

It's better than no birding — and no birds — at all. But you get the sense that ducks and plovers wouldn't be scrounging for habitat next to the Walmart parking lot if there were more pristine land available, if we hadn't wrecked it with development, intensive farming practices, over-pumping, over-fertilizing, etc.

As the doctor may have told you once or twice: It looks like it's time to make some changes.

Hernando bird count's little things slowly adding up to big trouble 12/27/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 27, 2011 9:09pm]
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