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Birders flock to islands for Christmas Count

By Staff | Dec 10, 2014

Bill Jacobson and Hugh Verry are organizers of the San-Cap Audubon’s December Bird Count. CRAIG GARRETT

A demographic survey for island birds is planned for Dec. 20.

Birds from a rare Canada goose to a bald eagle will be counted in the one day Christmas Bird Count in Sanibel and Captiva that dates in the US to 1900. Thousands of “citizen scientists” will join nationally in the 115th Christmas Bird Count running from Dec. 14 through Jan. 5.

Sanibel and Captiva count on the first Saturday of the start date. The islands last year fielded 121 volunteers in 43 teams. Some 100 species of birds were recorded.

Volunteers assigned to the Sanibel-Captiva Audubon Society will man grids to count the number and types of birds spotted. Units consist of a serious birder/spotter and a recorder. The grid circumference is about 15 miles, with volunteers on foot, bicycle, boats and vehicles. Most good birders own an expensive telescope or binoculars. The count is a close estimate, as some birds like the white pelican hang in large groups or move between grids.

Some 2,300 groups nationwide will join in the bird count, with islanders counted in the top tier for participation. Bird celebrities like Don and Lillian Stokes will join in the Sanibel and Captiva counts. The island couple have authored birding fieldguides read worldwide. Their lectures always overflow.

CRAIG GARRETT

Christmas Count adult volunteers aren’t all serious birders and some are schoolchildren, said Bill Jacobson, chief island organizer and a San-Cap Audubon boardmember. But brace for poor weather, pesky bugs and hightide on beaches and streams, Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation land, and at the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge, where 40 species last year were recorded, he said. Lowtide means breakfast and brings the birds.

“(You) don’t need to be a birder” to volunteer, said Jacobson, who will tally Dec. 20 field reports and submit them to an Audubon Society database.

The organization named after the famous woodsman and artist is a chief advocate for world wildlife. Audubon for more than a century has a legacy safeguarding habitats and wildlife, like the California condor and brown pelican, and is behind Everglades restoration, among other accomplishments, advocates for the organization said. The National Audubon Society has some 500 chapters that often drive policy affecting wildlife and conservation causes.

The nonprofit’s main ordnance is its membership corps; Sanibel and Captiva will field, percentagewise, more volunteers than most Christmas Bird Count programs in the country. That the islands retain tracts of undeveloped land is a chief attraction; but also that southwest Florida is popular with vacationing snowbirds, the feathered type. The white pelican, for instance, winters at the “Ding” Darling Refuge, as do other species. The Ding is also home to dozens of bird types. A westcoast biologist researching the rare Mangrove cuckoo lives at the refuge.

The Christmas Count is traced to John James Audubon, who was the country’s dominant wildlife artist in the 18th century. His book “Birds of America” featured life-size prints of American birds. A French immigrant, Audubon conducted bird-banding experiments, tying strings around the legs of Eastern Phoebes; he learned that the birds returned to the same nesting sites.

That same passion drives island birders. On any day at “Ding” Darling, for instance, the ribboning road around the refuge is dotted with birders armed with cameras, telescopes and binoculars. The objects of their ardor fish, sun themselves or otherwise enjoy the isolated sanctuary named after Jay Norwood Darling, an early advocate who began the Federal Duck Stamp program and helped launch the conservation movement. Junior and Federal Duck Stamp winners visited the Ding refuge last month.

To a beginner, birders speak a foreign language, barking out species’ names in back bayous, backslapping one another spying an elegant Reddish Egret with its winged canopy over unsuspecting fish, for instance.

Birding in the refreshing outdoors quickly hooks the amateur, Jacobson said. The colors and behaviors and socializing are a hoot. And the opportunities to learn are endless, especially in the islands with so many workshops, lectures, guided beach and morning hikes, river and bayou tours in the Ding and in Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation property, he said.

“(You) get into birds,” Jacobson said, “and it sort of flows. I guess it depends on how much you want to get into it.”

Those interested in volunteering for the Christmas Bird Count may call (239) 246-1054.