Rich Schofield, Kristen Murtaugh and Beth Ensor take part in the Audubon Christmas Bird Count on the beach in Ocean Ridge. Their tools include binoculars, a spotting scope on a tripod, bird guides and digital camera. Photos by Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star
See more photos from the annual Christmas Bird Count
By Cheryl Blackerby
“Sanderlings, the first birds today,” noted Rick Schofield. The little wading birds — white with tan wings and black beaks and legs — flew low over the waves lapping at the sand of Delray Municipal Beach.
A willet soared high over the ocean, with a backdrop of pink and gold clouds as the sun peeked over the horizon. Another bird dive-bombed into the water for a fish. “A royal tern,” announced Schofield, looking through his binoculars. “See the orange beak and the Friar Tuck black cap?”
Three bird watchers — Kristen Murtaugh of Delray Beach, Beth Ensor of Ocean Ridge and Pat Canning of Delray Beach — raised binoculars to look at the bird and concurred that it was indeed a royal tern. They immediately spotted ring-billed gulls.
The group’s bird watching Jan. 4 was part of the Audubon Society’s 114th Christmas Bird Count. Armed with binoculars, bird guides and checklists, tens of thousands of volunteers across the country also counted birds. Each group chose a day from Dec. 14 through Jan. 5 and braved snow and cold in the North and wind and rain in Florida to count birds.
The Christmas event is much more than taking a day to admire birds. For more than 100 years, the bird counts have provided important data to scientists and conservationists.
“The Christmas Bird Count is the longest-running citizens’ science program in the country,” said Jacqui Sulek, Audubon’s Florida chapter conservation manager. “It’s in conjunction with Cornell University. They use a lot of that information to track the population of birds. We’ve discovered, for example, that many of the birds are moving north because of climate change.”
There are 44 Audubon chapters around the state that sponsor many more groups for the annual bird count. Every year, each group counts birds in its own circle, which is 15 miles in diameter, and doesn’t overlap with other circles.
“That same area is done every year so we have a good snapshot of that place,” she said.
The volunteers are skilled bird counters who can quickly distinguish a laughing gull from a herring gull.
“You get sensitive to the shape of a bird and the way it moves. They become sort of your friends,” said Sulek, who lives near Gainesville. Her bird count this year turned up some of her favorites. “I always love seeing our winter warblers, black-and-white warblers, yellow-throated warblers. And we saw a male vermilion flycatcher, one of the beautiful birds.”
Some volunteers have conducted bird counts on bike, and she said she once did a Christmas Bird Count in a kayak on the Santa Fe River in North Florida.
Schofield’s group started its bird count at the Delray Municipal Beach then moved along the coast north to the Boynton Inlet.
At the Gulf Stream Golf Club, they saw three ring-billed gulls, an osprey and a turkey vulture circling high above the course.
“There’s a red-breasted merganser!” exclaimed Murtaugh, a former Florida Atlantic University vice president who leads bird-watching trips.
Canning, whose husband, Vince, started the Vince Canning Shoes store in Delray Beach, spotted a kestrel perched in a tree on the golf course. “It looks like a peregrine falcon but smaller,” she said, admiring the bird through binoculars.
“Kestrels are on a severe decline across the country, and they know that because of these counts,” said Schofield.
Audubon’s analysis of bird population data from the Christmas Bird Counts plus the Breeding Bird Survey has revealed alarming declines of bird populations, even ordinary birds most people take for granted.
Common birds in decline, according to Audubon statistics, are the northern bobwhite (31 million that have declined to 5.5 million), the eastern meadowlark (24 million to 7 million), the common tern (100,000 to 30,000) and field sparrow (18 million to 5 million).
The findings point to a growing impact from habitat loss from development, deforestation, conversion of land to agriculture and climate change, according to Audubon research.
At the Little Club Golf Course in Gulf Stream, Murtaugh heard the strident call of a nanday parakeet, and found the birds in a small tree near the clubhouse. Its flamboyant green color, red thigh feathers and black mask make this bird, often kept as pets and taught to talk, easy to spot.
Schofield walked over to one of the course’s ponds and spotted the bird that was the highlight of the day — a Canada goose, which is quite rare this far south.
“It’s not a decoy, right? Is he moving?” Ensor joked.
Next, the group spotted three starlings, a boat-tailed grackle and a pileated woodpecker.
“That’s Woody Woodpecker,” said Schofield, chuckling.
At the Ocean Ridge Natural Area at Corrine Street, a little blue heron posed for photos on rocks by the Intracoastal Waterway, and three wood storks flew overhead, their 6-foot wingspans a sight to behold.
At Gulfstream Park, lesser black-backed gulls and herring gulls wheeled in the air currents near the lifeguard station. A majestic great egret took a few running hops in the grass north of Ocean Ridge Town Hall, then spread its wings in magnificent slow-motion flaps into the air.
Schofield made another great sighting: the elusive common eider at the Boynton Inlet.
Ensor kept an official tally of the sightings, furiously cataloging birds as they were called out.
At the end of the day, the group’s bird count had tallied 45 species and 875 birds. The numbers were slightly down from last year. “Too cool and too windy,” said Schofield.
But there’s always next year.