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Birders all ears, eyes, all atwitter

The group quietly steps toward the small structure in Fort De Soto Park. Eyes dart. Binoculars scan a tree line. A toilet flushes.

"It likes to hang around the bathroom," says Monique Abrams, who moves forward as five friends follow. Abrams knows her unpredictable quarry.

"I don't see it," someone says.

Nothing. Once again, the hermit thrush lives up to its name.

"Birds just don't stay put," says Rebecca Falkenberry, 59, a St. Petersburg travel agent, repeating a common birder's lament. "You've got to get up dang-gone early to find them."

About 40 bird enthusiasts descended on Fort De Soto Park and Tierra Verde on Saturday for the 13th annual New Year's Day Birding Open, a good-natured competition among some of the area's best birders. The competition benefits the Audubon of Florida's Coastal Islands Sanctuaries.

Carrying a list of 154 bird species, the birders _ working in groups or alone _ trekked among million-dollar homes and soggy tidal creeks to identify the most species and win trophies. It's really the bragging rights that count most.

Who would win?

Perhaps the group headed by Abrams, 42, a St. Petersburg antiques dealer who finally did find her hermit thrush, though not in or near any restroom.

Or maybe the group with Ron Smith, 47, the St. Petersburg police officer who said other officers "expect birders to be librarians or computer geeks."

Rich Miller, 56, is no geek. He's a psychiatrist at the Pinellas County Jail who entered the individual competition.

"There's really nobody else at the jail who is a birder," he said, though he speaks only of the jailers, and not the inmates.

The competition is sometimes intense, often friendly, never dull.

The birders love it, though most attest that it can be difficult, frustrating, unpredictable toil. A yellowed-bellied sapsucker might flutter across one lucky birder's path in the first five minutes of competition.

Other times, a common bird will prove elusive all day, as happened with Abrams' group.

"We haven't seen a blue jay yet," said Bill Bilodeau, 64, a professional gardener from St. Petersburg, spreading his arms plaintively.

As any birder knows, ornithology is sometimes a four-letter word.

"We don't fool around," said Paul Blair, 71, a Largo retiree who founded the event, smiling to show he might be joking.

The rules are simple. Birders can begin at any time after midnight. Work must be finished by 12:30 p.m. They can roam from the tollbooth on the Pinellas Bayway south throughout the entire park.

Birders operate on an honor system. Cheating is almost unheard of in birding circles. If someone said they heard or saw a Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrow, then it's accepted as gospel.

"It's like fishermen," said Dave Thompson, 62, a St. Petersburg retiree in the individual competition. "Every once in a while, you find someone who exaggerates. Not often."

Abrams' band of six birders professes to be a laid-back bunch who, like most birders, enjoy getting out to enjoy nature and the good weather more than the competition.

But Falkenberry lets a stranger in on something of a secret. "This group," she said, "will be disappointed if they don't get to 100 birds."

They got a later start than some, deciding to gather about 7 a.m., perhaps making allowances for a late night by members of their group.

Jim McGinity, 40, of Dunedin, who works for Pinellas at its Brooker Creek Preserve Education Center, complains that New Year's festivities, though not his own, interferred with his sleep.

Birding beats partying any day, someone said.

"Tell that to my neighbors who had their own private fireworks party at midnight," McGinity said, nine hours after his neighbor's event. "Idiots."

The group bounces from bird habitat to bird habitat in Abrams' Chevrolet minivan, moving quickly and driving somewhat erratically _ a hazard among birders prone to brake for all manner of goldfinches.

At one point, Abrams turns the van in at a 7-Eleven lot. This isn't a Slushie break. Any birder knows house sparrows love parking lots. Abrams finds them.

Then they drive to a pond amid some of Tierra Verde's ritziest homes, driving slowly past mailboxes shaped and painted to resemble swans and gators. They're here for ducks.

"Believe it or not, each different pond has different ducks," Abrams said, explaining visits to several ponds.

They find many, including a northern shoveler which, like human snowbirds, prefers to winter in warmer climes.

At one point, McGinity hears the sputtering song of distinctly human origin off in the distance as he eyes the tree tops for an owl.

"It's an ultra-light airplane," he said. "We can't count them."

Occasionally, Abrams' group bumps into other birders. They are all friends, even if they guard their list of sightings carefully.

Deep inside the park, near a cell phone tower that birders call a "warbler hot spot," Abrams and crew pass another group. One member of that band is pointing up in a tree.

"He's doing that to fake us out," said McGinity, who takes out binoculars and peers up into the tree just to be safe.

Later, Abrams cries out, "Thrush! Thrush! Behind the grill! See him!"

The hermit thrush's solitude is broken.

By 12:30 p.m., Abrams and friends have identified 84 bird species, one raccoon, a crab and one wooden owl inexplicably attached to a tree limb.

Their tally is good. But they come in third.

In the end, the police officer, Smith, and his gang bag the top prize with 99 birds. Blair, the founder of the event, is a member of the group.

Miller, the jail psychiatrist, gets the individual prize with 86 species.

Smith came to birds late in life, looking for a diversion during a visit he and his wife made to Maine to see her sister. All the gossip was getting on his nerves, he said. He bought some seed, put it in a feeder and watched the flocks come. He was hooked. "It gets in your blood," he said, though he said he doesn't think police officers are typically good birders.

Then smiling, Smith said: "And it's good for what, I ask you?"

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