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More than 14,000 birds counted during Christmas Bird Count

By Staff | Dec 30, 2015

Shirley Bohnert used her binoculars during the annual Christmas Bird Count at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge Saturday, Dec. 19. MEGHAN McCOY

Sixteen volunteers arrived at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge bundled in warm clothes carrying their binoculars ready to participate in the annual Sanibel-Captiva Audubon Christmas Bird Count.

Walt McNairy became involved in the San-Cap Audubon annual Christmas Bird Count 11 years ago because he enjoys the diversity and variety of species he sees and counts.

“We will end up with 40, 50, 60 species,” he said. “The key of the diversity is keeping a healthy estuary.”

The volunteers were among 129 individuals who participated in the annual event on the island. Twenty-five hundred birds were counted at “Ding” and 14,494 birds were counted island wide. The total count was comprised of 88 different species.

The San-Cap Audubon Christmas Bird Count is part of the National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count, which is now in its 116th year. More than 50,000 observers take part in the national event every year from mid-December through early January.

Mary Periard marked off the bird species Walt McNairy spotted during the annual Christmas Bird Count the San-Cap Audubon participates in every year. MEGHAN McCOY

“This is a citizen science,” McNairy said. “This is not pure research.”

The data collected by the volunteers Saturday, Dec. 19, will be reported to the National Audubon Society and become apart of the 116th Audubon Christmas Bird Count.

A holiday tradition, referred to as the Christmas Side Hunt, took place before the turn of the 20th century in an effort to try to bring back the largest pile of feathered, or furred, quarry to win. Although conservation was in its infancy during this time, concerns were brought forth by observers and scientists that the bird population was declining.

On Christmas Day 1900, Frank Chapman, an ornithologist who was an early officer of the Audubon Society, proposed a Christmas Bird Census that would count the bird species, rather than kill them. Twenty-five Christmas Bird Counts took place from Toronto, Ontario, Pacific Grove and California that day with 27 dedicated birders. Ninety species were counted.

With many years of Christmas Bird Count statistics compiled, the Audubon Societies across the nation can see the health trend of the various bird species.

The volunteers who arrived at “Ding” Saturday morning were broken down to teams of three or more. They were dispersed to different locations across the refuge with a piece of paper listing different bird species on a clipboard.

Some of the volunteers were seasoned birders, while others joined the yearly event less than five years ago.

Mary Periard began volunteering her time three years ago for the Christmas Bird Count after frequenting “Ding” and seeing the event listed in the newsletter after becoming a donor.

“I like the opportunity to be with more experienced birders and spotting things I haven’t seen before. ‘Ding’ is such an exceptional place,” she said while tallying the birds her group were seeing. “It’s a chance to be with people of like mind.”

Twenty years ago, Shirley Bohnert began counting birds during the annual event at “Ding.”

“It’s a challenge and different every year,” she said. “It’s a wonderful way to know what’s happening nationally with the birds and it’s always fun.”

McNairy, Periard and Bohnert tackled the left side of first part of Wildlife Drive’s estuaries where hundreds of birds of every size and color were feeding. As McNairy and Bohnert used binoculars to spot the near and far away birds, Periard kept tallies of the species they were calling out.

“These guys are our old friends,” McNairy said of the bird species that made its presence known.

He believes the most challenging part of the Bird Count is counting all of the little birds.

As the team counted the species wading in the water feeding, they also had to keep their eyes to the sky as new birds landed in the estuary. The seasoned birders kept track of which ones were just departing from the area, or moving to another area at the same location.

McNairy said the number of bird species they counted could possibly be due to the warm weather the area has experienced so far this season.

“It might be a factor that they haven’t moved,” he said.

After McNairy retired he and his wife became involved with the National Park Service as rangers and became actively involved in leading birds walks 18 years ago.

“Birding is something you start as a kid,” he said. “Seeing birds is a lifelong passion.”

Bohnert began birding more than 20 years ago after some of her relatives instilled the passion in her. She said the passion has only intensified living in Florida.

“I lived on a lake and had lots of birds,” Bohnert said. “You just get into it.”

Follow Meghan @IslanderMeghan on Twitter.