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Birders find the rare and routine

Volunteers bearing binoculars and bird calls fan out on a blustery day, tallying nearly 15,000 birds in the annual Christmas Bird Count.

Her eyes squinted, her forehead wrinkled, Lesa Ehlers leaned forward, searching beyond the early morning mist.

"What is that sitting on top of that branch?" she asked, motioning across the Homosassa River from her seat aboard a 21-foot pontoon boat.

"That's an osprey," responded Joan Miller, a member of the Citrus County Audubon Society. "One osprey," Miller repeated, looking over her shoulder to where Jim Meister held a clipboard.

And so began the Christmas Bird Count.

A nationwide tradition since 1900, local birders got involved 14 years ago. On Thursday, nearly 30 volunteers, binoculars and bird calls in hand, fanned out across a 7.5-mile radius, starting at Crystal River Airport, in search of as many species as they could spot.

"Even though it was a blustery, rainy day, and a cold front came through, it was still a good day for birding," said organizer Ken Spilios.

Nearly 15,000 birds were counted this year, up from about 11,500 on Dec. 28, 1999. Numbers were down considerably from 1998, though, when 26,000 were recorded.

Most common birds this year: American robin (3,726); ring-billed gull (2,725); and yellow-rumped warbler (1,454). Most rare: scrub jay (1); hermit thrush (1); clapper rail (1).

First-time sightings: northern pintail duck, the sharp-tail sparrow, brown-headed nuthatch and Franklin's gull.

Overall numbers are interesting to track but they can swing due to distribution of common birds, such as robins.

"If it's extremely cold up North, we tend to have more birds down here. If it stays warm up North, then we have less," Spilios said. "It's a really tricky thing."

More important, researchers say, are the number of species and the populations within those groups.

The count "gives us a barometer of the health of the environment," Spilios said. "Animal species and bird species are the first to feel the effect of environmental changes."

Those changes are usually the result of human activity. According to Census 2000 figures released this week, Florida's population increased 23.5 percent, to 15.9-million from 12.9-million in 1990.

Citrus County has followed that upward trend as well. In 1980, 55,000 people lived in the county. Ten years later, the figure increased to 94,000; currently, about 125,000 people reside here.

Housing, naturally, has had to keep pace with the influx and developers have bought up open land for subdivisions, golf courses and shopping centers. "We've lost a lot of upland pine for housing," Spilios said.

As a result, birds such as the red-cockaded woodpecker have dwindled. Habitats for the scrub jays have also been lost. The burrowing owl, once prevalent on farmland, has not been seen in years.

This year only one scrub jay was seen in the count area, near Meadowcrest, and no red-cockaded woodpeckers. Fourteen years ago, the group counted up to 13 scrub jays and up to 10 red-cockaded woodpeckers.

"We could always count on getting them for the count in the past but no longer can," said Betty Smyth, another organizer.

"It makes me a little sad. I know people like it here but the very thing they come to find is disappearing because of it."

There is some good news amid the gloom. The population of the bald eagle remained steady; six were spotted Thursday. That is slightly fewer than recent years, but the rain might have played a role.