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Birders devote a day to counting beaks

Before dawn Saturday, avid avian fans took to the woods and lakes with binoculars, tape recorders and clipboards.

[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
Murray Gardler, left, and Jim Moran listen and watch for birds at McKethan Lake on Saturday.

By JAMIE JONES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 31, 2001


BROOKSVILLE -- The glossy ibises dipped and swayed across the sky. A phoebe, with its white chest and black coat, waited on a limb to catch a fly. Nearby, a snowy egret walked through a puddle, scaring up insects with its bright yellow feet. A blue bird sounded its whiny, plaintive cry.

Behind a barbed wire fence at McKethan Lake north of Brooksville, Al Hansen looked through the lens of his telescope and watched the birds, a favorite hobby of the 76-year-old retired tool and die maker who lives in Spring Hill.

"We still haven't seen the snipe yet," Hansen said.

His 62-year-old wife, Bev, stood behind him, binoculars dangling from her neck, a pencil in her right hand, a clipboard in her left. With every audible cry and every sighting of a new bird, Mrs. Hansen bent forward and scribbled it down.

The Hansens participated Saturday in the National Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count, the 102nd nationally and 22nd in Hernando County. Before dawn, seven groups of birdwatchers drove to different sites across the county and began their 13 hours of counting birds.

Down a path blanketed with acorns and leaves, a man wearing a "Bird Watchers Are Lunatics" sweat shirt walked quietly, a telescope fastened to his back.

"Psssh. Psssh. Psssh," Murray Gardler called into the woods, trying to provoke a response from small birds by echoing a cry they use while warning each other about predators.

No birds.

Gardler, 65, pulled a tape recorder from his back pocket. Out came the sound of a screech owl.

"There!" he said. "See the red-bellied woodpecker?"

Gardler and Jim Moran, 77, spent the morning circling the lake, talking to each other about their birdwatching experiences. Gardler spoke of his eighth-grade teacher, a naturalist who got the class interested in snakes and butterflies, flowers and plants. Gardler, a retired General Motors employee, has been watching birds for about 50 years.

One night, he asked the woman who would later marry him to go owling. She thought he meant parking and excitedly agreed. He took her to a dark spot, got out of the car and started hooting and hollering. "What have I gotten into?" Gardler recalled her saying.

"She stays at home now when I go birding," Gardler says. "She calls me a bird bum."

Moran has been watching birds for about 60 years and said he passed many a day on Navy ships by looking toward the sky and sea to examine birds. He was walking around his Timber Pines neighborhood looking at birds and ran into the Hansens, who introduced him to the Audubon Society here.

"Birdwatchers are nice people," Moran said. "It's a good group to be involved in."

Moran and Gardler were like two young boys on a treasure hunt Saturday, competing to see who could spot the most birds.

About 50,000 people participate in the counts nationally and send data to the Audubon Society, which uses the numbers as a rough census of birds across the country. The data can be used to help scientists examine population and migration patterns and to give environmentalists an idea of how birds are affected by continued development.

The count started in the early 20th century when Frank Chapman, a member of the Audubon Society, looked for an alternative to the popular holiday hunts for birds. Chapman wanted an end to the killing and suggested that people count rather than shoot birds. The counts have been occurring ever since, according to the National Audubon Society.

By midmorning, the McKethan Lake group had spotted more than 100 birds from 19 species, including a barred owl, three pileated woodpeckers and 10 yellow-rumped warblers. By the end of the day, they hoped to see about 120 species in their area of about 7.5 miles.

The group planned to tally their counts this weekend and send them to the Audubon Society.

-- Jamie Jones can be reached at 754-6114. Send e-mail to jjones@sptimes.com.

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