Annual bird count keeps track of all things winged

The Christmastime event helps monitor avian wildlife in the midst of development.

Published December 19, 2006

BROOKSVILLE - If you want to see birds, you've got to find water.

And as development leaves its mark on Hernando County, more and more of those water sources are crafted by human hands.

So it was that some of the county Audubon Society's keenest birders found themselves traipsing behind Brooksville Regional Hospital on Saturday for the 107th annual Christmas Bird Count, a national effort to keep track of all things winged.

Retention ponds built behind the hospital were stocked with native plants, and have proven to be a magnet for birds, said team leader Mary Dowdell.

"It's a tough time right now because it's been a dry spell, so a lot of our wetlands have dried up," she added, without making eye contact.

On this day, all eyes were skyward.

"There's a whole bunch of warblers," called out longtime birder Mike Wollam, scanning the tree line across a brambly field.

"Any other warblers besides the palm warbler?" asked his wife, Sheila, the group's scribe.

"Not yet," he replied, quickly adding three goldfinches and a bluebird to her list. "Whoa, a downy woodpecker just flew in!"

In years past, the national bird count has helped the federal government to gauge the impact of West Nile virus and other maladies upon bird populations. The Hernando teams routinely spot more than 100 species during the single-day inventory.

Dowdell started her day at 6:45 a.m. looking for owls. Before the day was done, she and the group would crisscross their zone in south central Hernando, from State Road 50 down to Powell Road.

They would see sandhill cranes by the squadron, plus cormorants, grebes, killdeer, kingfishers, a bald eagle and many other species - don't call them countless, not today - on a pristine lake off Griffin Road.

Fourteen lounging anhingas observed their observers, lazily draping their black wings across the branches of a single tree.

But the group would also spot avian friends in much closer proximity to human neighbors, like the Louisiana or tricolor heron observed picking its way past a new housing development.

"Do you guys want to meet us at Wal-Mart and you can check out that retention pond?" Dowdell asked, as the group hurried to its next rendezvous.

The watchers, like the birds, adapted to their changing environment.

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or 352 848-1431.