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Annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count measures health, trends in bird population

Terri Gonzalez, left, and Joe Colontonio check out a pair of hooded merganser ducks during a West Pasco Audubon Society  nature walk in 2014 at Jay. B. Starkey Park in New Port Richey.

MICHELE MILLER | Times (2014)

Terri Gonzalez, left, and Joe Colontonio check out a pair of hooded merganser ducks during a West Pasco Audubon Society nature walk in 2014 at Jay. B. Starkey Park in New Port Richey.

NEW PORT RICHEY — The West Pasco Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count takes place a few days after the holiday and organizer Peter Day is hoping for some new volunteers who want to get outdoors. Maybe walk off the holiday indulgences while making a contribution to citizen science.

Whether a beginning birder or full-fledged enthusiast, all are welcome to join the count. Just be sure to wear proper clothing and walking shoes, bring a pair of binoculars and be ready to look, listen or log the count.

"This is all done by volunteers. It is a very valuable and important tool," Day said, adding that the inexperienced need not be wary. "We assign newcomers to a team that has at least one experienced birder. They can help by helping to record the data. All that's required is that they carry a clipboard and note pad and be able to make tally marks."

Now in its 117th year, the National Audubon Christmas Bird Count is a worldwide effort to collect data that is then made available to researchers. The West Pasco count, which will be on Dec. 28, is one of about 70 taking place throughout Florida, and the second-largest county among bird circles, Day said. Other organizations hold their own counts during a 24-hour period between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5

"There are maybe five or six counts in this part of Florida, and a number of birders want to partake in more than one bird count, so we end up juggling the dates," Day said.

Last year, about 32 local volunteers ventured out to count birds in specified areas within a 15-mile radius that extends into the Gulf of Mexico.

This year's group will gather midday at the Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park Education Center to transcribe field notes that will be funneled to the national organization.

The hub of the West Pasco count circle is at the shuttered Magnolia Valley Golf Course. Volunteers will count at multiple locations, including county parks, a local stork rookery and on a pontoon boat in the gulf.

"We always count (within) the same circle so over a period of years you can see what birds are present and how their numbers change," Day explained. "It gives an indication of the health of the population, the changes due to development such as loss of habitat or climate change."

"If you look at the data of North America and other parts of the world as well, the counts give you an interesting picture," he added. "You see that some birds are moving north, and for some species that might be adaptation to global warming."

Last year, volunteers counted 25,283 birds in west Pasco, Day said. "We saw 164 different species."

Birders also make note of species they expect to see, but don't, as well as rarities that must be backed up by graphic images.

"We won't see swallowtail kites," Day said. "They breed here in Florida, but will have gone south. On the other hand, we may see a fairly large number of American robins."

Some concerns within the counting circle include the endangered Florida scrub jay, Day said, as well as the red-headed woodpecker.

One recent rarity, Day noted, is the black-bellied whistling duck, a gregarious species that likes to nest in tree cavities.

"It's fairly well known in other parts of Florida, but we had not seen it in Pasco County until last Christmas. There is a spot in New Port Richey where you can see about 100 of them. They are interesting. They don't quack; they whistle a very distinctive song."

The song is a lot of the lure for birders like Day, a retired agricultural scientist and college professor.

"Seeing birds and what they do is fascinating," he said. "As is realizing how little we understand how birds communicate with each other, interact with the environment and the significance of the calls they make."

Contact Michele Miller at mmiller@tampabay.com Follow @MicheleMiller52.

>>fast facts

West Pasco Audubon Society Bird Count

The West Pasco Audubon Society Bird Count will be Dec. 28. Those interested in taking part should contact Peter Day at p1rd@verizon.net. For information about the bird count and other programs and events offered by West Pasco Audubon, go to westpascoaudubon.com.

Annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count measures health, trends in bird population 12/20/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 21, 2016 4:22pm]
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