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Birdwatchers scan skies to record bird population

The rare red-cockaded woodpecker became rarer, and a Florida favorite, the scrub jay, laid low, but birders participating in the 12th annual Christmas Bird Count in Citrus County this week still saw the second-largest number of birds, and kinds of birds, that they ever have.

Birders' eyes were particularly sharp and discerning, and the warm autumn weather encouraged some migratory birds to hang around longer than usual , said Ken Spilios, who tallied the numbers Wednesday night: 130 total species and 26,360 total birds.

Spilios, a former president of the Citrus County Audubon Society, which sponsors the count, said the total bird count was inflated because more than 13,000 robins, making their way farther south, filled the trees and skies all over the county's west side, where the count takes place.

Nonetheless, said Spilios, "it looks like a very good year."

He was particularly pleased because birders saw five new species they had not spotted in past counts. All were water birds: 12 oystercatchers, a ruddy duck, a snow goose and a marbled godwit were seen the week of the count, which allows them to be included in the species list though not the total bird list.

The fifth bird, a Western Kingbird more common on the other side of the Mississippi River, is in dispute, and will only be officially counted after Spilios and others examine birding's version of instant-replay: a would-be spotter claims to have snapped a photograph of the bird shortly before the count, which could still serve as evidence that she saw the bird on count day.

Spilios attributed the decline of the red-cockaded woodpecker and the scrub jay to habitat loss resulting from land development. None of the woodpeckers were seen at all, including in the Pine Ridge area where they have been spotted every year but the past two.

"The only sustainable population (of red-cockaded woodpeckers) is in the Withlacoochee Forest, where there is no development," Spilios said.

And birders counted only seven scrub jays, rare birds that have recently been nominated to oust the mockingbird from its perch as Florida's state bird.

But there was more good news. "Bald eagles are our comeback bird," Spilios said, pointing out 12 total birds, eight of which were immature. "That means that there are not only adults here but that they are breeding."

There also were notable sightings of exotic birds, either pets that have escaped captivity or tropical birds that blew in with an aberrant weather front.

"Exotic birds sometimes flourish when native species are in decline," Spilios said. Abandoned habitat leaves room for the birds to breed.

Counters saw 61 Eurasian collard doves, "more of an urbanized bird," said Spilios. "We no longer see the mourning dove in urban areas as much. I can remember a time when there were no Eurasian collard doves in the county."

And birders also spotted 30 Monk's parakeets. "Those certainly are two that are on the rise," he said.

Spilios speculated that exotic birds, which seem to appear more in Florida than other states, may stray from some of the state's abundant theme parks. The parks often stock cages and ponds with exotic birds.

The reason for annually counting the area's birds is to better track environmental changes caused by development, weather and other factors. Where the birds are, and are not, can provide clues to an area's environmental health, Spilios said.

"Remember, diversity is the thing that determines the health of a population," he said. "I like to think that we have a healthy county."

But Spilios said even the 130 species spotted in 1998 should not be taken as a sign that the county has been unaffected by its expanding human population. Of the 130 species, nine were represented by just one bird.

As for the count itself, Spilios said, "it gets harder and harder, it really does. It's harder to get good birders to come out and help us at Christmas. That's the time you get a lot of migrating birds."

And, no, the birders don't try to count every bird in every nest in the county. They return each year to designated spots within a 7{-mile radius of the Crystal River Airport. And weather patterns play a major role in the count's annual fluctuation because different birds migrate at different times depending on the weather.

"You have to look at it the same time at the same place each year" to accurately charge changes, Spilios said. "I try to keep the data as pure as I can. We just don't want to have our data questioned."

The National Audubon Society each year publishes Citrus County's Christmas Bird Count totals with counts from 15,000 other areas in the United States. This year, the information will be published on the World Wide Web at http://birdsource.cornell.edu.

Spilios, 50, who organized the county's first count with Audubon Society member Betty Smyth and has participated ever since, said he will be entering his totals via the Internet for the first time.

Despite declines in scrub jay sightings and a second no-show by red-cockaded woodpeckers, Spilios said, the county's rivers, swamps, shoreline, uplands, scrub areas and pine forests create diverse habitats for birds.

"I think we have a gem of an ecotourism area," he said.

And what about next December, which will be the National Audubon Society's 100th bird count? "I guess we'll beat the bushes again," Spilios said.

Christmas Bird Counts

Twelve years of Christmas Bird Counts in Citrus County. Total bird count list first, then species count.

Dec. 28, 1987: 15,270; 116

Dec. 30, 1988: 13,737; 128

Dec. 29, 1989: 14,851; 127

Dec. 28, 1990: 28,606; 122

Dec. 28, 1991: 14,767; 126

Dec. 28, 1992: 17,238; 127

Dec. 28, 1993: 10,750; 120

Dec. 28, 1994: 12,104; 127

Dec. 28, 1995: 18,902; 121

Dec. 28, 1996: 14,866; 135

Dec. 28, 1997: 18,562; 125

Dec. 28, 1998: 26,360; 130

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