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Drought is a bird-watcher's pal

Dry times are an opportunity to lure some rare species into the back yard. All it takes is a little bit of water.

Times coverage
Current watering rules
By CHASE SQUIRES

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 12, 2000


As the ponds dry up and the water table drops, enterprising bird-watchers can take advantage of the situation to enjoy a bounty of birds in their own back yards, according to enthusiasts.

The ongoing drought has created opportunities -- and some unusual bird sightings -- said Ken Tracey, president of Pasco County's Audubon Society chapter.

"These birds coming into our area, they still need to drink and they still need to bathe," Tracey said. "They'll go wherever the water is."

But, Tracey and others said, they won't die of thirst, even if no one puts out water for them. They always find some.

With the Suncoast under a National Drought Mitigation Center alert, area retention ponds have turned to mud and finally to dust. Watering restrictions have silenced sprinklers. Without rainfall, there are no roadside puddles.

The drought is especially tough on the variety of migratory birds passing through on their way north, Audubon bird specialist Bill Pranty said. Dozens of species make the 30-hour flight each April and May from Mexico and South America across the Gulf of Mexico.

They arrive in Florida ready for a drink.

"The first place they find, they hit the ground and start to recover," Pranty said.

Birds are usually able to get moisture they need from the insects they eat, he said. And they often can find water in city water treatment plants, rivers and large lakes if all the other sources dry up, so they aren't likely to die of thirst, he said.

But Tracey, an avid bird-watcher, said anyone who does put out a plate of water can be sure to attract a flock of visitors.

"They see it from the air," he said. "Birds will fly 20 or 30 miles to find water if they have to."

Fellow Pasco Audubon enthusiast Dorothy Bornemann said she has seen usually shy sandhill cranes take a sip from her bird bath, and a variety of rare warblers have stopped by to splash.

Tracey said in times of drought, water can lure more birds than even food.

Some of the unusual birds Tracey has seen stream through the area this spring include the all-blue indigo bunting and blue grosbeaks, goldfinches and 25 species of small, brightly plumed warblers.

The low water levels in local ponds have also caused some strange sights, such as spoonbills and sandpipers lured to suburban ponds from their usual wetland homes, Tracey said.

"If thirsty birds spot a reliable source of water, they'll come," Tracey said. "You'll be surprised at what you see in your own back yard."

For the birds

To attract birds and create a safe environment for them, experts say homeowners just need to put out a little water.

Use a shallow concrete or terra-cotta dish and keep it a few feet off the ground, to keep away raccoons.

Clean the water regularly.

Put a bell on the family cat. Florida Audubon spokeswoman Sandra Bogan said millions of birds are killed by pets each year

The online Audubon Society site, http://www.Audubon.org, has links to Florida chapters.

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