What a wonderful account of the Christmas Bird Count in Florida! Thanks to Audubon’s Jacqui Sulek for participating in our yearly tradition. This count took place in beautiful Hamilton County, Florida. Enjoy:
Imagine spending the entire day doing one of your very favorite things. The Holidays mean many different things to different people. As a birder the thing I look forward to the most around Christmas is the Audubon Christmas Bird Count.
When I moved to rural North Florida years ago I was invited to participate in the Hamilton County CBC. It is a pretty low key count involving between a dozen and 15 people, some experienced birders and others less so. Fortunately there is a role for everyone. The circle (15 miles in diameter) is divided into 4 regions and each is assigned a team. The thing that is unique about this count is that half of it takes place within a phosphate mine. We held our count yesterday.
The most robust birders began “owling” before dawn. I have to admit that when possible I leave that task to others. My small team of 3 met just before sun-up in White Springs (way down upon the Suwannee River). Everyone was bundled against the cool morning temperatures and came prepared with the tools of the day, binoculars, spotting scopes maps, checklists, birding guides, and plenty of food and drink. My partners Chet and Carolyn Harris are from Pennsylvania but like many of our avian friends, they spend the winter in Florida. They are Audubon members in both places. We have done the count together for 4 years now and look forward to spending the day together.
There is a large area to cover so our travel is both by car and foot and we follow a similar route each year looking to include the greatest variety of habitat. We like to find a large number of species as well as a large number of birds but feel it is important to hit the same spots providing continuity of data from one year to the next. Our first stop was the piney woods of Little Shoals on the Suwannee River. There we greeted the dawn. The combination of cool temps and fog produced less than spectacular results. The Chipping Sparrows, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Chickadees and Woodpeckers were all a-chatter but it was tough to count what we could not see. Eventually the morning began to warm up and as we peeled off layers of clothing the list of species and numbers began to grow.
The morning zipped by. We stopped often. We visited pine plantations, Oak hammocks, agricultural fields, neighborhoods, river banks, State Parks, and even checked out the water tower in downtown White Springs where wintering Black Vultures like to roost. By early afternoon we had checked off close to 50 species. The highlight was a Dark-eyed Junco we found peering through the fence of a very upscale hunting plantation.
We had planned to meet the other three circle teams at 1:30. The task that lay ahead required that we spend the rest of the day together. Our circle coordinator Jerry Krummrich has an arrangement with the Phosphate mining Company, a venture that covers 1/3 of Hamilton County. This extremely altered habitat offers large expanses of open water providing wintering grounds for waterfowl. The dikes provide fantastic vantage points above this moonlike landscape. The area to be covered and the numbers to be counted present a daunting task. John Hintermeister (our neighbor from Alachua County who has been doing bird counts for close to 40 years) Bob Richter from neighboring Baker County And Jerry were responsible for the difficult task of identifying and counting the huge volume of birds we encountered. It was serious business. Only the most skilled can pick out the species at such a distance and estimate numbers close to reality. Betsy Martin,Megan Olson(relatively new birders) Chet and Carolyn and I provided extra eyes and ears critical to covering this immense landscape. The experts called out the numbers and I wrote them down: Hundreds of white pelicans and gulls, thousands of ducks (10 species) as well as 2 species of grebes, coots, wading birds, rails, birds of prey, sparrows and what must have been thousands of the ubiquitous Yellow-rumped warbler. It is an odd setting but clearly provides significant winter habitat for all these birds.
At 5:00 p.m. as the sun began to drop towards the horizon we packed up our scopes, climbed into our vehicles one last time and headed to a pre-determined rendez-vous spot. After sharing a few highlights we tallied the numbers and turned them over to Jerry who will compile and submit them. At first glance it appears that we will again have seen over 100 species. The Christmas Bird Count had left us all tired, yet once again oddly energized having spent all day long doing one of our very favorite things.
Our local chapter (Four Rivers Audubon) has added 2 new CBC circles over the past 4 years. We understand the important conservation role that Audubon’s citizen scientists fill. I am already looking forward to when I reciprocate and join John for the Alachua Audubon count.