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One Bird, Two Bird, Three Bird, Four

By Staff | Dec 23, 2011

Nick Nichols gazes through binoculars on a search for birds amid Sanibel Island's Clam Bayou. (Photo by BILL SCHILLER)

On December 17, 2011, people throughout much of the Western Hemisphere trekked through wilderness areas as well as city streets and along coastal shorelines in support of an avian-affiliated tradition that dates back 112 years. The Audobon Society’s Christmas Bird Count gathers people of all ages and backgrounds in singular focus (aided by binoculars) to physically identify and count every single bird they see on that day.

On Sanibel Island, that exercise has been happening for more than 20 years and natural by product of a community renowned as a national sanctuary for most forms of fauna, fins and feather. It’s home to a thriving species of bird lovers too, and flocks of these could be observed throughout the island last Saturday.

While most took to their corridor for bird counting on foot, some others drove around in golf carts. In only one case, the count was conducted by a crew aboard a pontoon boat captained by Tim Gardner, and a case could be made, that this was “the place to be” during the bird count, or most any other day of the week.

The argument is validated by witnessing the sheer beauty of Sanibel’s Clam Bayou and it’s inhabitants, which on this day, not only included numerous species of birds, but pontoon passengers such as local Author Charles Sobczack, Committee of the Islands Board Member Larry Schopp (tally keeper of the cruise count), two area residents Karen Gumbert and Ellen Strobel (new to the experience), Nick Nichols (forward observer) and Tim Gardner.

Gardner actually coordinates activities within one the ten districts by which Sanibel is divided for the bird count, in this case, an environment encompassing Tahiti and Jamaica Street over to Blind Pass.

During the cruise it is evident that the area is more than sufficient for Gardner’s environmental sensitivities. Some may be surprised to know that this man, who also serves in running the projector at the local theatre, was formerly tapped by President Nixon’s Administration for the launch of a little endeavor recognized today as the Environmental Protection Agency. Gardner had been working in agriculture in Atlanta when he got the call. He went on to oversee operations involving fertilizers and pesticides, and a certain highlight of his career involves the removal of DDT from the market.

Of course, conversations of length are none too easy on this passage, as each moment is filled with, “There’s an Osprey, no two Osprey, make it three!”

Or other references, to anhinga, egret, heron and other winged wonders so abundant among the bayou.

Charles Sobczak has brought along the latest, comprehensive edition of a field guide for birding, not that he really needs it. Most onboard know what they’re looking at as soon as they see it.

As soon as the species is noted, Schopp jots down a mark on a ledger containing every species of bird known to exist on Sanibel.

Most stay busy peering into the sky, trees and density of the mangroves, counting through the cruise. Of course, some would never let arithmetic ruin what is otherwise a beautiful moment on the bayou. The thickets are lush and green, except for the solid sun-bleached stalks of Australian Pine that jut out here and there, all dead and devoid of leaves, as stoic remnants of Hurricane Charlie, but many are crowned by nesting Osprey. The water, which only measures a few feet deep, is so calm as to perfectly cast a hue from the morning sky in true yellowish splendor, and is only disturbed by the frequent rippling from jumping fish. It’s easy to see why the birds are here, and who could blame them. Gardner says that eight of the ten years he has been involved, the weather was windy and cold, but today is graced by gentle breezes that are more cooling than cold.

Upon turning one bend, the crew hits the mother load in bird measures; a flock of brown pelican are spotted. Sobczak initially predicts some 85 pelican are in the gathering, but even as the count is made, more arrive from the left, then the right, and before it was over, some 300 pelicans were accounted for.

In total of all species observed, more than 600 birds were counted during the cruise which ended all too soon. When asked how they felt about participating in the bird count for the first time, Karen Gumbert and Ellen Strobel both said they were likely to participate again next year. Gumbert called it “an amazing experience.” Strobel described her take in a singular word – “magical.”

To counter what some may consider as a leisurely activity, the situation in the board room at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation is a bit more intense. The operational hub of the bird count, Bill “Jake” Jacobson supervises the data collection process. He and other volunteers barely finish a coffee and donut as counters start arriving. It seems each has a unique experience for which they can account. Ruth Kitchin shares details of her sighting of snowy plovers, an endangered species, “which are always so nice to see in Sanibel.”

J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge Biologist Tara Wertz arrives, and her report is positive. “We saw everything we were supposed to see,” says Wertz. “That kind of continuity is good for us.”

In all, a total of 18,480 birds, representing 106 separate species, were identified by the 130 local participants.These results will now be reported to the National Audobon Society, adding not only this community’s share to national data, but further historical standing in reflecting residents’ affinity for Audubon and the avian community of Sanibel Island.