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Group: county's bird count healthy

While the 2004 hurricane season brought a tumult of wind, downed trees and high tides to west Citrus County, the area's delicate bird population didn't seem to show much effect.

At least that's what the initial count information from the Audubon Society's annual bird census seems to indicate.

"Nature has a way of healing itself," said Ken Spilios, who serves as the compiler for the annual Christmas Bird Count in Citrus. "Downed trees create habitat for birds and dead tree snags are great for woodpeckers."

Overall, hurricanes or not, the county's bird population seems healthy, even though it continues to show the effects of burgeoning growth and development.

Eight teams featuring 43 individual counters scoured Citrus shores, forests, marshes and fields on Dec. 28, trying to gauge how birds are doing in the area. Their count spread out in a 7{-mile radius from the Crystal River Airport. Their findings show a light decrease in the number of birds compared with last year, but an increase in the number of bird species.

Gone for several years now are the birds that are especially stressed by development. As their habitats are replaced with homes and their pristine forests with lawns where domestic cats and dogs can harm them, birds such as the scrub jays, the burrowing owls and even the bobwhite quail dwindle and finally disappear.

"I don't think we'll ever be seeing them again, or we will see them in small numbers," Spilios said.

The most common bird spotted in this year's survey was the robin, which topped last year's rough count of 3,000 by another 1,000 this year. Robins fly in when the weather up north drives them here.

Bald eagle numbers were strong at 24, and other raptors such as hawks and osprey looked stable. But shorebirds, and especially duck species, were far below last year's numbers. Spilios said that, in the entire count area, only 33 coots were seen; in past years, on the Crystal River alone, counters expected to see 1,000 or more.

Ducks tend to leave their northern habitat when waters freeze. Spilios said the numbers here could just reflect that it remained relatively warm in the north.

Whether the low numbers are a harbinger of bad times for ducks overall won't be known until all the national bird count numbers can be factored in. If few ducks are seen in the traditional northern areas as well, "then all of a sudden red flags might be going up," Spilios said.

Weather also might be a factor in the large increase in cedar waxwings. Only five were observed last year, but 100 times that number were seen in this year's count. It could be they were just coming through the area at that time because of weather conditions, he said.

Although the day of the count was clear and provided good conditions, an extremely low tide made it difficult to count shorebirds, Spilios said. Also, gulls normally seen in west Citrus might have been roosting around the east Citrus lakes on the count day, since their numbers were also lower.

Counters also were lucky enough to see a few rare birds, including one seaside and one sharp-tailed sparrow, and two least bitterns, which Spilios saw himself while scouring a freshwater lake area. "I realize that birding is about 90 percent luck and 10 percent skill," he said, noting that the small birds flew up in front of him when he was actually looking for another secretive species, the rail.

Spilios said he is pleased with this year's results.

"I think we're very consistent and we're very honest in our approach of counting the birds," he said.

Numbers over the 18 years since the Citrus birders have conducted the annual count have been consistent and Spilios said that, while there are changes in the birds as the area changes, he still is optimistic about Citrus' feathered population.

"I think our environment is still healthy," he said.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at 564-3621 or behrendtsptimes.com.

CITRUS COUNTY AUDUBON

CHRISTMAS BIRD COUNTS:

DATE NUMBER OF BIRDS NUMBER OF SPECIES

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

Dec. 28, 1999 11,467 128

Dec. 29, 2000 14,971 127

Dec. 28, 2001 16,323 132

Dec. 28, 2002 12,982 127

Dec. 27, 2003 16,054 125

Dec. 28, 2004 15,236 132

_ Source: Citrus County Audubon Society

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