If it’s almost Christmas, it’s time to count birds.
Audubon’s annual holiday bird count, the longest-running citizen survey of birds going on 117 years, begins this month with South Florida counting circles starting this week. Throughout the month, from Saskatchewan to Key Largo and south across much of South America, volunteers will be doing their best to spy the ordinary and the exotic, from pelicans and geese to the flaming scarlet tanager and barrel-chested gray kingbird.
“Something rare always shows up,” said Pete Frezza, an Everglades research manager for Audubon Florida, who has led the Keys count for 15 years. Like the western spindalis, a songbird with feathers the color of flames ringing its neck, or the mangrove cuckoo. Or flamingos!
Counting can be as simple as scouring a stormwater treatment area that lures wading birds to a more rigorous trek into Florida Bay’s back country. Brian Rappoza, a MAST Academy science teacher who heads the Miami-Dade County circle, is always on the look for backyard counters.
“We still get very little information from people’s own backyards and that information is so valuable,” he said. “If people are planting native plants, they’re likely attracting native birds and we need to know how effective that is. We’re having a real hard time convincing people to participate in that way.”
Information from the snapshot counts is compiled into a national outlook that provides both a look into the habits of migratory and resident bird populations as well as insight into other impacts, like weather or climate change. Last year, after nearly two years of warm wet weather triggered by an extended El Niño, counters found far fewer birds. Scientists speculated that the mild weather likely meant birds had remained spread across the landscape rather than concentrated in more protected areas where counters usually find them during wintry months.
Two years ago, Audubon used count results from five decades to assess climate change, finding that many species had shifted early winter ranges as the planet warmed. They are now keeping an eye on specific birds for a climate watch project aimed at tracking bigger patterns. Frezza’s count, which has been ongoing for 72 years, has also traced changes in bird populations tied to changing water levels fueled by sea rise in Florida Bay and the Everglades.
“Without data, you can’t solve problems,” Frezza said. “Hearsay doesn’t get you anywhere. Having this extraordinarily long and scientific credible data is just fantastic for answering questions about our bird populations and our trends.”
With its unique combination of water fowl, wading birds and songbirds, some resident and some migratory, South Florida bird counts typically dazzle even while the number may fall below other parts of the country.
Last year’s Florida count set a new record with more than 1.8 million birds cataloged that included sightings of rare reintroduced whooping cranes, the object of one the stranger conservation efforts: humans dressed as whooping cranes trying to teach the birds to be birds. Counters also recorded 11 Franklin’s gulls, the highest yet, a buff-bellied hummingbird and a rare yellow warbler whose song sounds, well, a little sweet.
“It’s so variable, it stays exciting,” Frezza said. “You just never know what you’re going to see.”
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich