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The bird man of Lutz

By BILL COATS

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2001


LUTZ -- As dawn broke Sunday, most Americans were sleeping in, blissfully unaware of the Great Backyard Bird Count.

Dave Bowman was 20 feet up in a holly tree.

He had climbed there for a perfect vista of a swamp where birds roost at night. Bowman counted from the holly tree as the sun's first rays illuminated:

172 cattle egrets

117 white ibises

10 tricolored herons

10 little blue herons

About 100 red-winged blackbirds and their biological cousins, grackles.

Bowman's passion has helped put Lutz on the map in the competitive circles of birding. The nationwide bird count was being tallied this week, and Lutz tentatively ranked 10th among the "Top Ten Cities" in Florida, based on 84 different species reported by birders.

Tampa placed eighth with 86 species. St. Petersburg was seventh with 87. Jacksonville placed first with 104.

Lutz repeated as a "Top Ten City," despite the fact it never has been a city and Bowman's back yard isn't in Lutz. It's just north of the Hillsborough-Pasco county line in an area most residents consider Land O'Lakes.

But Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology, which compiled the bird count, used the birders' ZIP codes to identify cities, and Bowman's Pasco County house is in the Lutz ZIP code.

By Tuesday, Bowman counted a total of 79 species of birds.

Greg Williams, whose Wild Birds Unlimited store in Carrollwood caters to bird lovers, said lots of birders visit from Lutz, but Bowman probably played a major role in Lutz's high count.

"He probably knows as much about birds as anybody in this area here," Williams said.

Cornell coordinates with the National Audubon Society several bird counts each year, including the century-old Christmas Bird Count. The Great Backyard Bird Count, which isn't really limited to back yards, is designed to locate birds just before mass migrations begin in March. The count ran last Friday through Monday. Among other things, it revealed that more than 25,000 robins were visiting Florida for the winter.

Bowman, 44, lives among diverse bird habitats. His home, off County Line Road, is between Hillsborough's Hog Island Lake and Pasco's Bird Lake. It's a block from Thirteen Mile Run and is surrounded by woods, a cypress swamp, a marsh, an orange grove and a row of pines.

As Bowman and his wife, a Hillsborough County botanist, considered buying the house six years ago, Bowman glanced into a pecan tree overhead.

"A couple of migrant warblers were flitting around in the tree," he said.

He was sold.

Bowman formerly repaired computer systems but now is a stay-at-home dad. More accurately, he stays near home. Daughter Sarah, 4, has her own pair of bird-watching binoculars. Deanna, 11 1/2 months, has a stroller with wide, rugged wheels.

Over the years Bowman has learned that an overcast or drizzly day is good for bird-watching. The birds get timid and stay noticeably close to the ground.

Windy days bring out the soaring birds like hawks and vultures. On Monday, Bowman watched a bald eagle float majestically on the breezes over Hog Island Lake.

But wind otherwise impedes bird-watching. Birders look for motion against the still foliage; wind agitates the foliage.

Bowman also has learned that a big live oak at the edge of a meadow often teems with life. Birds lurk in the gnarly branches for insects that stop there to rest. Near such a tree Monday, Bowman heard a blue jay mimicking the call of a hawk, trying to frighten rival birds away from its brunch.

Bowman can identify the calls of most birds, hearing them before he sees them. Before dawn last Friday, Bowman walked outside and heard a distinctive exchange between two chuck-will's-widows, nighthawks that were supposed to have already migrated to South America. He added them to his bird count.

On Saturday, he heard a Wilson's warbler, a tiny yellow bird almost never reported east of Louisiana. Then he found it in the brush next to his marsh.

But by Monday, the final day of counting, Bowman was frustrated by two days of wind. He had counted only 71 species, compared to 78 the year before.

Bowman feared last week's warm spell had sent some birds heading north early. Wetlands, which attract birds, have withered in Florida's drought.

For weeks, a red-tailed hawk had hung out in nearby cypress trees. Kestrels, another species of hawk, stalked local skies. But now they had eluded him.

By day, Bowman crept through the woods, knowing that small, dapper yellow-throated warblers were around. No luck.

Ditto for great horned owls. At twilight, "I stood outside, hoping they'd go out for a rat or a rabbit," Bowman said. "No such luck."

By Monday afternoon, and with 76 species counted, Lutz dropped to 10th place in Florida. Winter Haven, previously in 10th with 75 species, fell off the list as e-mails from bigger cities poured into Cornell.

"I figured I'd go to a couple more sites in Lutz just to boost the numbers," Bowman said.

When he set out, Bowman had less than an hour of sunlight left in the four-day count.

He drove to a pond on Nebraska Avenue, just south of Hanna Road. He counted ring-necked ducks and a gadwall, another duck.

Then, luck. Instinctively scanning the skies, Bowman noticed pigeons fluttering under the Interstate 275 overpass. He counted them. A flock of monk parakeets flew past.

Bowman drove to a pond near Newberger Road. There was a kingfisher and several house sparrows. Then, a marsh south of Collier Parkway. A common snipe and a lesser yellowlegs.

Eight new species. Bowman reported those, and Lutz's total rose to 84, securing 10th place.

"I didn't think this year was that good," he said.

Yet Lutz's number beat last year's by one species, just as Bowman had upped his personal total by one.

Across Florida, among more than 1,700 checklists sent to Cornell, only two others contained Wilson's warblers.

Best yet, nobody else, anywhere in Florida, had reported the nighttime call of chuck-will's-widows.

On the Internet

For results of the Great Backyard Bird Count, log on to: http://thrush.tc.cornell.edu/ResultsGBBC/2001/Tables/States/US-FL.html

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