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Watching the birds

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Audubon Society volunteers scour the sky during annual Christmas Bird Count

By Eryn Worthington

As the early birds were heading out to catch the worm, they noticed strangers occupying their woods. 

Some sang along in harmony, while others woke up on the wrong side of the nest.

It was a crisp, cool morning with dampness in the air. However, that did not prevent eager birders from wanting to catch a glimpse of their feathered friends.

Birders across Citrus County and the nation spent Friday participating in the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count. Nationally, the bird counts began Dec. 16 and continue through today, with thousands of volunteers participating.

The count, launched in 1900, brings people outdoors to count birds instead of shooting them. 

“The idea is to see how many birds you get this year compared to what you had last year and the last few years,” said 20-year bird counter Mike Smith. 

Locally, the Citrus County Audubon Society set aside Friday as its day to count. Only two days were available for the count, since it is determined by the tides.

“Tides are very important,” Smith said. “You have to have the proper tide for that. If the tide is down, the birds will be out in the Gulf and you can’t get them in to count them.”

With approximately 140 species of birds recorded last year in Citrus County, 43 birders split into 10 groups spread across a 15-mile radius — with the center being the Crystal River Airport — to record the different species of birds in the county.

Birders used binoculars, cameras and spotting scopes to maintain a calculation along the western region of the county.

The National Audubon Society and other organizations use the data collected in the census as a means to establish the health of bird populations as well as to assist direct conservation actions. 

Traveling road by road, birders spent the day counting the diverse species in designated areas. Once the day was over, all 10 groups joined together in Beverly Hills to compile their findings. A recorder noted the findings and then sends the totals to headquarters.

Birders find the annual count an enjoyable experience, with opportunities to discover new birds.

“I really enjoy it,” said Citrus County Audubon Society Vice President Fred Hileman. “You get out and are with great people. I’m always on the lookout for another new bird to add to my personal life list that I keep. We all have one. I have added a lot since I have been in Florida for the last two years. The members of the Audubon are all after the same thing — a bird.”

Hileman and his three team members covered an area between U.S. 19 from Bluebird Springs in Homosassa south toward Cardinal Street.

“He likes to bird because he likes for me to take the pictures and then make him videos,” said 20-year birder Effie Smith about her husband, Mike Smith. “When his knees hurt so bad that he can’t stand it, he likes to go lie down and watch the videos with music.”

Effie began making “shh, shh, shh” sounds with her mouth. Known as phishing, it is a technique birders utilize to awaken birds for observation.

“What she is doing there is phishing,” Hileman said. “It is terminology that we use to kind of attract some birds. Birds will come up and listen to what you are doing. They are curious.”

Friday’s count did not produce any first finds but some of the species observed and counted by the group include the common American robin, cardinal, red wing, downie woodpecker, marsh wrens, vultures and wood ducks. 

Birders also used sound-making devices to mimic specific species to lure them in for counting. Hileman carried his phone with an application that made various bird chirps and tweets. 

Hileman said he will continue to participate in the annual counts.

“It’s a wonderful management tool,” he said.

Chronicle reporter Eryn Worthington can be contacted at 352-563-5660, ext. 1334, or eworthington@chronicleonline.com.