Miami-Dade County

Audubon Christmas count in South Florida: It’s for the birds

A white pelican stands in the shallows of Snake Bight in Everglades National Park.
A white pelican stands in the shallows of Snake Bight in Everglades National Park. Miami Herald Staff

The yule tide log is glowing and the mistletoe is hung. Now, please pass the binoculars.

That sums up holiday plans for thousands of birdwatchers who participate in the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count. The event, which runs through Jan. 5, surveys the avian population around South Florida and across the hemisphere, cataloging birds of every feather, from the rare whooping crane to common egrets.

“There’s really no better long-term data set than the Christmas Bird Count,” said Peter Frezza, an Audubon biologist.

The count started more than a century ago by ornithologists protesting traditional Christmas “side hunts” — who believed the season could be better celebrated than competing to slaughter game — and now stands as the longest-running biological citizen survey.

With decades of numbers, researchers have been able to plot shifting migration patterns and document declines in populations, like with shorebirds, as well as increases in others.

Audubon says its counters were the first to spot an increase in bald eagles. And recent observations from the Keys may indicate a rise in resident ospreys in Florida Bay. Counters last year also confirmed well-camouflaged semipalmated sandpipers wintering in Florida Bay and documented a rainbow of exotic parrots over Miami, including red-masked yellow-chevroned parakeets.

Frezza, who started leading the nearly seven decade-long count in Key Largo and Plantation Key in 2000, said surveys are particularly useful in South Florida.

“That goes back to the time when there was hardly anyone living in Monroe county,” he said. “That’s just incredible.”

The counts are simply organized compared to the piles of data they provide. Organizers pick a location, establish a 15-mile diameter boundary, then head off in teams to count both the kinds and number of birds within the circle.

This year counters are searching for birds in about 2,300 areas across the country. Some counters work from dawn to dusk, but outings can vary depending on the group. Many draw the same loyal counters year after year and usually end with a celebratory tally.

“It’s really a heartfelt mission,” Frezza said.

While bird populations have plummeted — plume hunters in the 1920s killed 95 percent of the state’s shorebirds before it became illegal — South Florida remains a hot spot for both resident and migratory fowl. Miles of uninterrupted beach, wetlands and the state’s ribbon of keys snaking south provide both year-round habitat and crucial way stations.

In the Upper Keys, birders routinely spot mangrove cuckoos, gray kingbirds and black-whiskered vireos perched on utility wires or skittering across beaches. Remote Lake Ingraham near Cape Sable is home to the state’s biggest flock of pink-hued roseate spoonbills.

“I’m always in awe when I see the snail kites,” said Margaret England, who leads a Clewiston count on a pollution-scrubbing wetland created by the South Florida Water Management District in 1999.

Two years ago, her group spotted a rare whooping crane that had migrated south from Wisconsin, where a recovery team is trying to rebuild a population that plunged to 21 in the 1940s.

England helped start the count after the water management district asked Audubon Florida to help provide a recreational use for the wetland known as Stormwater Treatment Area No. 5, which is located about 28 miles south of Clewiston.

The group also leads year-round tours, but the Christmas Bird Count is the event that annually establishes the 17,000-acre wetland as a birding mecca. Last year’s count helped document more nesting and breeding snail kites — an endangered hawk struggling to survive in a shifting habitat — than anywhere else, England said. The location also ranked in the top ten for the variety of species nationwide, she said.

“Right in the parking lot, I usually tally at last 30 species,” England said. “I’ve only been a birder since 2005, but in my nine years every bird was really amazing.”

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