The number of birds counted during this year’s Christmas Bird Count was up from 2012, with three new species added to the county life list.
On Dec. 27, 30 volunteers traveled 242 miles by foot, car and boat to count 11,573 birds of 139 species during the 2013 count. This is significantly less than two years earlier, in 2011, when more than 24,000 birds were observed during the CBC. But like last year, windy and inclement weather, especially in the morning, was a factor in the lower count.
The number of species, 139, is slightly higher than the annual average of 134, since the CBC began locally in 1994. Franklin County organizer John Murphy said the tally is contingent on the acceptance of 10 rare species by the CBC’s organizers at Audubon.
Seen here for the first time during a CBC was a flock of four sandhill cranes spotted over land near Magnolia Cemetery. Sandhills are the world’s most common crane, an ancient bird with a close relative dating back to the Miocene Epoch.
Today, sandhills are found mainly in North America. They breed in the northern U.S., Canada, Alaska, and Siberia and travel to wintering grounds in Florida, Texas, Utah, Mexico, and California. December is unusually late for sandhills still to be on the move in Florida skies.
Also seen here for the first time during a CBC was a ruby-throated hummingbird feeding in the same Apalachicola historic district feeder as a buff-bellied hummingbird and calliope spotted last year. Although ruby throats are the most common hummingbird in this area, most leave the Panhandle for the winter and migrate to Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. A few remain in the Gulf states and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Remarkably, it is believed tiny migratory ruby throats cross the Gulf of Mexico in a single 18-to-20-hour marathon flight twice a year.
The third new addition to the local roster of species was a cave swallow spotted on a spoil island near the John Gorrie Bridge. Although they usually nest in natural caves and sinkholes, cave swallows will nest in or underneath manmade structures like bridges, which might explain their presence on the island.
Rock pigeons were absent from the count for the second year in a row and Murphy theorized the local flock may have been decimated by a peregrine falcon that has been observed roosting on the Gorrie Bridge.
Sprague’s pipits were observed at the regional airport again this year.
Once again, a western kingbird was observed in Apalachicola’s historic district. Sightings of this bird in the eastern US have become more common during the 21st century.
The bald eagle population continues to flourish. This year 61 were seen around the county, up from 51 last year.
Rod Gasche, who worked with the group counting birds on the river and bay, wrote this stirring description of a bald eagle encounter:
“We headed back to the West Pass to reenter the bay on the eastern shoreline of St. Vincent near what is known as dry bar. It is one of the main oyster bars in the winter harvesting area for the bay. As we crossed the pass, one of the members shouted, ‘Look at the eagles!’ Here we saw eventually six flying with soaring seabirds and swooping down to the water. The water was filled with cormorants and a pod of porpoises that were feeding on a baitfish ball! That activity was causing the baitfish to come to the top of the water and the eagles were swooping down and catching fish from the waters! We watched enthralled for a while as none of us had ever expected see something like this! Only one of them was an adult eagle, the rest were immature birds - but learning their craft!”
The most commonly observed bird was the American robin, with 3,135 individuals counted. The majority of these, 1,910, were counted along the Miles, although robins were observed in every count area except the southern end of St. Vincent Island.
This year all three scoter species were observed, a feat only achieved once before in the history of the local CBC. The scoter is a sea duck that breeds in the far north and spends most of its time offshore when in its southern range.
According to the Audubon website, the CBC helps inform conservationists about local trends in bird populations and plan strategies to protect birds and their habitat. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency included Audubon's climate change work from CBC data as one of 26 indicators of climate change in its 2012 report.
Great Backyard Bird Count coming up
The CBC is over, but now it’s time to gear up for the 16th annual Great Backyard Bird (GBBC) Count Feb. 14-17. The GBBC is a four-day event that engages bird watchers in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of where birds are across the U.S. and Canada.
The GBBC is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society to learn more about how birds are doing. Last year, participants turned in more than 104,285 checklists online, creating the continent's largest instantaneous snapshot of bird populations ever recorded. Watchers reported observing 623 species and nearly 17.4 million individual birds.
Anyone can take part in the GBBC, from novice bird watchers to experts. Participants count birds for 15 minutes or more on one or more days of the event and report their sightings online at www.birdcount.org.
On the website, participants can explore real-time maps and charts that show what others are reporting during the count. The site has tips to help identify birds and special materials for educators. Participants may also enter the GBBC photo contest by uploading images taken during the count. Many images will be featured in the GBBC website’s photo gallery. All participants are entered in a drawing for prizes that include bird feeders, binoculars, books, CDs, and many other great birding products.
For more information about the GBBC, visit www.birdcount.org or contact the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at (800) 843-2473.