By Contributing Writer Donna Malloy
Photo and Caption by Donna Malloy
The first Christmas Bird Count took place on December 25th, 1900. But what is now a true count of bird species originally began as a holiday tradition known as the Christmas "Side Hunt." Hunters would choose teams and with guns in hand, rampage the fields and forests searching for their prey: birds. The team who possessed the largest pile of feathers would be proclaimed the winner and the colorful feathers would eventually end up perched atop a woman's hat.
Fortunately, at the turn of the 20th century, an early officer of the Audubon Society ornithologist Frank Chapman recognized the declining bird populations and decided to be something about it. From then on, the Christmas Bird Count would represent an actual counting of birds instead of killing them. And so began the Christmas Bird Count tradition.
This year, the national Christmas Bird Count took place on December 21st, 2008. All across the world, more than 50,000 volunteers walked beaches, fields and forests to count the type and number of birds at the same time. The data collected provides a picture of how the continents' bird populations have changed in space and time over the past century.
Caladesi Island State Park, the #1 beach in the country according to Dr. Beach, was the Clearwater Audubon Society's territory. Armed with binoculars, checklists, field guides and plastic bags to pick up trash, the volunteers divided into three groups; one assigned to the north end of the island, one to the south end and the third to the trail.
On this 109th Christmas Bird Count Day, the weather was windy and the tide was high. At high tide, the water covers the salty marshes where the small seabirds feed. One of the challenges for the
Clearwater Audubon Society that day would be to find where these shorebirds were temporarily resting and count their numbers.
Lead by birder Frank Brandt, within two hours the southern team identified Brown Pelicans, Laughing and Ring-billed Gulls, Willets, Royal Terns, Cormorants, Forrester's Terns, Common Loons, Red Breasted Mergansers and a Palm Warbler.
Not only is the Christmas Bird Count vital for conservationists, it also helps target environmental issues with implications for people as well. A change in bird population in a particular area from one year to the next could indicate such environmental issues as groundwater contamination or pesticide poisoning.
For example, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Brown Pelican "nearly disappeared from North America between the late 1950s and early 1970s. Extensive scientific investigations revealed the culprit to be human-made organochlorine pesticides entering the marine food web. The pesticide endrin killed pelicans directly, whereas DDT impaired reproduction by causing individuals to lay thin-shelled eggs that broke under the weight of incubating parents. Both effects led to serious population declines. Breeding colonies along the Pacific and Gulf coasts of the United States were particularly hard hit. So vast was the devastation that, ironically, the species disappeared altogether from Louisiana, the "Pelican State," by 1963. In 1970, the Brown Pelican was placed on the Federal Endangered Species List. The plight of this and other species led to a ban on the use of DDT in the United States in 1972 and a reduction in the use of endrin during the 1970s. Reproduction soon improved, and pelican numbers began to rise. Recovery was so successful that the Brown Pelican was removed from the Endangered Species List in the southeastern United States in 1985 and its population restored to pre-pesticide levels along the Gulf coast by the late 1990s. Once a symbol of the detrimental effects of pollution in marine eosystems, the Brown Pelican now symbolizes the success of wildlife-conservation efforts."
Each one of us can do our part by helping to protect and restore habitats close to home. In cooperation with the Florida Park Service and Audubon of Florida, the Clearwater Audubon conducts year-round nesting protection of wintering shorebird and seabird species at Three Rooker Island and North Anclote Bar. Under the guidance of Dana
Kerstein, who is in charge of Conservation Projects for the Clearwater Audubon Society, volunteers identify, count, record and monitor the nesting activities of fledglings. You don't have to be an ornithologist to participate; "beginning birders are welcome," stated Kerstein. For more information, go to: clearwateraudubon.org.
Photo and Caption by Donna Malloy
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