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Hernando Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count is a search for hopeful signs

Covering the annual Christmas Bird Count usually means driving down forest roads, standing on the shores of rural lakes, and wandering along barbed-wire fences in search of burrowing owls and bobwhite quail. • Monday, I sat in a lawn chair on a screened-in patio looking out on backyard feeders.

"Hey, I know this house. This is on the eighth tee,'' said Dave Sutherland, part of a Hernando Audubon Society crew whose territory included, of all places, the massive Timber Pines retirement community on U.S. 19.

The house belongs to Al and Bev Hansen, who led this crew as part of the annual count centered on the coastal community of Aripeka.

Why didn't I cover the Brooksville count, which features Bystre Lake, as I have at least a dozen times before?

Because it's just become too discouraging.

A decade ago, watching the sun rise at Bystre was like seeing the curtain open on the best natural show in the county: sky-darkening flocks of ducks tormented by diving Cooper's hawks, white pelicans, sandhill cranes and so many anhingas, cormorants, herons, wood storks and egrets that pencils were worn to stubs keeping the tally.

Then, two years ago, in the early — or earlier — stages of the ongoing drought, the water level was far below normal, and black vultures outnumbered all other species.

Last year, the first priority of crew leader Mike Liberton wasn't finding any particular bird — just the lake. This required a hike through a forest of dog fennel growing in the former lake bed.

There was some good news from Saturday's Brooksville count: The water level in Bystre has started to rise.

But, unfortunately, that didn't bring in any more waterfowl.

"Our real low point was ducks,'' said Liberton, who once again led the Bystre crew. "One of the birds we always get is a lesser scaup, and we didn't get a one, and nobody got one.''

Mostly because of this and other AWOL waterfowl, including the Northern shoveler, the total number of species counted was a below-average 112, said Clay Black, who organized the Brooksville count.

One theory offered by Bev Hansen: After several years of drought, ducks just got out of the habit of visiting Bystre.

Also, Liberton said, in the worst of the drought, a high concentration of frogs and fish would have been trapped in a lake not much larger or deeper than a puddle, meaning the entire food supply could have been wiped out by a few pelicans and otters.

Maybe the sky-high content of potassium and nitrogen has finally just made the lake inhospitable for natural life.

Or possibly — and this is the only remotely hopeful scenario — the relatively mild early December meant most waterfowl were in no hurry to migrate south.

There was evidence to support that belief Monday morning, said Al Hansen, who counted a respectable gathering of 12 ring-necked ducks on a shallow lake on the wooded fringe of Timber Pines.

That was more than Hansen had seen on scouting trips there just a few days earlier, suggesting the ducks had been driven south by last weekend's violent winter storm in mid Atlantic states.

Feeling a little more encouraged, maybe, that the natural word is still mostly in order?


That flock of ring-necked ducks is pitifully small compared with the 557 seen on Bystre 21 years ago. Then there's the sources of the water that have made the lakes of Timber Pines the go-to location to spot, for example, peacefully floating pairs of hooded mergansers: showers, kitchen sinks and, yes, toilets.

The subdivision's golf courses are irrigated with reclaimed wastewater. So lakes are consistently full, and ducks that get in the habit of settling down there after their fall migration don't get out of it.

Though reclaimed wastewater is cleaner than the stuff disposed of in spray fields, it is still "high in nutrients,'' said Hansen, "and ducks like that.''

It also occurred to me that the water that ends up in Timber Pines was originally pumped out from under the other natural lakes, which might partially explain the fact that they seem to be disappearing like spit on a griddle.

But birds, or many species, are adaptable. So are birders, who don't seem to care whether they find their birds in landfills or national parks. Let's follow their example and just concentrate on the birds.

A half-dozen hummingbirds were sighted during the Brooksville count, compared with the one or two that birders typically see, Black said. The tally also included two infrequently counted raptor species, merlin and peregrine falcons. The total for the Aripeka count, which includes a wider variety of habitats than the Brooksville territory, was 150, average or slightly above recent years.

And so what if the snipe Al Hansen found in his scope at Timber Pines was rooting through St. Augustine grass that looked just slightly more natural than AstroTurf. It's a relatively rare bird. Seeing its image fill the scope's lens was a thrill.

Then there was a lanky bird preening itself with its curved, dagger-sized bill. It looked identical to the crowd of white ibis it stood with except for one striking difference: It was black. And, as Bev Hansen pointed out after finding the bird in her scope, its eyes were red.

In her bird book, she showed me the white eye mask that forms during the spring breeding season, which gives the species its name, the white-faced ibis.

Hansen, maybe the most accomplished local birder, had never seen a white-faced ibis on a Christmas Bird Count in Hernando. Along with a handful of other members of its species spotted in Florida, it suggests the birds are expanding their historic range, which she also pointed out in her guide.

"As you can see, he really belongs in Texas,'' she said. "In Florida, this is a very rare bird.''

Hernando Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count is a search for hopeful signs 12/22/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 22, 2009 8:02pm]
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