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Early morning frost can't quell bird count

Bad weather has never stopped Murray Gardler in the 49 years he's been birding.

He's been out in snowstorms and searched for feathered species in the pouring rain.

So a little bit of frost on the ground Saturday morning wasn't going to deter him.

"A couple of days ago, I did a (bird) count in the rain and got completely soaked. I've chased birds all over the country," he said. "This year I've been to Texas in April, Alaska in June, Arizona in August, Massachusetts in November and California in December. My wife hasn't divorced me yet."

Gardler was one of several bird watchers out at 5:30 a.m. this weekend participating in the National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count, the 101st nationally and 21st in Hernando County. The official purpose of the count is to take a rough census of birds and species of birds, which can then be used for scientific study and environmental agenda-setting. But for the eccentric enthusiasts like Gardler, a Spring Hill resident, the count is also a grown-up's game to see who has the best eyes and ears.

"It's like a treasure hunt," said Audubon Society member Al Hansen.

Although officials had predicted a lower count than normal because of the cold weather and ongoing drought, things looked better than expected Saturday morning as birders began to tally their numbers. A full census would not be completed before the newspaper is printed.

"It's a good start," said Bev Hansen, as she completed a survey near McKethan Lake, northeast of Brooksville in the Chinsegut National Wildlife Refuge. "It's just hard to tell whether we'll find all the birds we expect at other places."

Results from the previous year had been encouraging, with a total of 123 species and 13,902 individual birds, both numbers above average. As of 10 a.m. Saturday, the Hansens had spotted about 60 different species and still had hours to go. The most unusual thing they saw was a flock of 120 migratory sand hill cranes.

"I've never seen that many before in my life," marveled Istachatta resident Tim Thomas.

The birders said the migratory cranes were probably in the area for the same reason they feared a lower count this year: drought. McKethan Lake is one of the few remaining large standing bodies of water in the area, they said.

"Lack of water reduces the number of places they can go," Al Hansen explained.

The Audubon's Christmas Bird Count is the closest thing possible to a national bird census. It dates back to 1900, when birders created the event to compete with hunting contests that were then popular during the holidays. The counts cover circular areas radiating 15 miles from a central point.

Audubon now sponsors more than 1,700 counts in all 50 states, Canada and several other countries.

The data collected from the count can be used to track migration and the health of various species. Nationwide, the number of birds is declining as development encroaches upon wildlife habitat, Bev Hansen said. Although recent local counts have been somewhat encouraging, she said the same problem is occurring in Hernando County.

"Areas that used to be wooded are now subdivisions," she said. "Millions of birds die every year, flying into (cellular phone) towers."

Thomas, an environmental consultant from Spring Hill, said participating in the Christmas Bird Count reminds him of the importance of Mother Nature in a way his day job can't.

"I spend so much time looking at the science, the chemicals, the pollution. This puts it all in perspective," he said, looking out over the lake at the rising sun. "This is what we're trying to protect."

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