If the snowbirds have landed in South Florida, must be time for the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas bird count.
The count, the planet’s longest-running wildlife census at 116 consecutive years, gets underway locally this weekend in Miami with a count that stretches from Coconut Grove to North Miami Beach and west to Hialeah set for Saturday. Through the first week of January, counts will be held from the Florida Keys to Fort Pierce.
Worldwide, organizers expect more than 72,000 birders, from Southern Guam in the far west Pacific to the Drake Passage at the tip of South America, to help track the rise and fall of species and inform conservation efforts.
“What it does is it gives us a snapshot of bird populations in Miami and how they’ve changed over the course of years and decades,” said Tropical Audubon board member Brian Rapoza, who leads the Miami count.
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In recent years, South Florida counts have helped document blips in the avian population that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Audubon counters were the first to spot an increase in South Florida bald eagles and have confirmed a boom in Cooper’s hawks. The steely-eyed forest predator has adapted to Miami’s urban highrises, feasting on Eurasian collared-doves that began arriving in the 1980s. Last year, Florida birders counted 386 statewide, up from 39 in 1985.
Counters also have helped document declines in birds often considered important barometers of an ecosystem’s health.
This year, Rapoza hopes to enlist backyard birders to gather more information about ruby-throated hummingbirds, a tennis ball-sized bird that can fly with the precision of a Star Wars starfighter. Each year, the tiny birds migrate from as far north as Canada to Mexico, stopping over in Florida before crossing the Gulf of Mexico. While some nest year-round in the Big Cypress swamp and other natural areas, almost all seen in urban areas are migrating.
“We would know a lot more about the actual wintering population if we had more cooperation from backyard birders. And we just don’t,” he said. “Every year, I put out a request on Tropical Audubon's bird board and get very little response.”
Audubon is also interested in the fate of a small eastern population of painted buntings, a rainbow jacketed songbird that migrates along the eastern seaboard south to Florida and the Caribbean. Increased trapping for song competitions have driven down numbers.
“We’re seeing a lot more than in recent years, but that probably has more to do with the fact that more people are looking for them,” he said.