Before the bird counters had fully assembled in the parking lot, the early volunteers were scanning the sky.
“There’s two black vultures. And, there’s a frigate,” exclaimed Carole Brigham and Lee Zerkel.
It seems the frigate was a surprise. They explained that the frigate population should have left with the arrival of the white pelicans. “And there go two white pelicans,” Bringman noted.
More volunteers arrived and coordinator for the Leffis Key-Coquina Beach-north Longboat Key area John van Zandt divided up the area, issued three pages of bird names that were likely to be counted.
The Dec. 27 Gulf-Island Circle Audubon Christmas bird count was officially under way.
Van Zandt, Zerkel, Brigham and newbie bird-watcher Wendell Graham made their way into Leffis Key. A total of eight teams, consisting of 36 birders participated in the 112th annual Manatee County Audubon Christmas Bird Count and the 30th annual Gulf Circle count, which includes Anna Maria Island, Perico Island, Cortez and the north end of Longboat Key.
The annual count netted some surprises along the way, including the frigate sighting, but also the great black-backed gull, which was spotted the day after the official count. The gull is typically not seen in this area at all, according to van Zandt who has been birding since the early 80s. There was also some disappointment, as some birds that were expected to be seen were not.
The counters did not see such birds as the cattle egret, green heron and more. The most common bird spotted during the count was the brown pelican, which numbered over 200. Besides the rare spotting of the frigate this time of year, several other species were only spotted once.
Those species include the wood stork, little blue heron, snowy egret, American kestrel and more. Organizers of the count also reported that only 16 common peafowl were counted on Perico Island, down from 24 last year.
“We saw fewer songbirds, which was also unexpected,” said van Zandt. “All in all, the numbers were down somewhat from prior years.”
With more than 100 years of database facts at the disposal of the Manatee County Audubon, the group is able to pinpoint trends in birding populations. The numbers this year are a concern to veteran birders like van Zandt, who noted his concerns, but said it wasn’t time to be alarmed.
“It does bring to mind environmental concerns,” he said. “Birds, like a canary in a coal mine, are a good indication of the health of the environment. For example, the red knot used to be plentiful in our area, but now there is only one little flock of about 50 birds during the winter.
“I love birding though. You get in the fresh air and it’s mentally challenging and, of course, much different than a typical workday,” he said.
Veteran birders have a love for what they do and typically speak about how they fell in love with bird counting on their first trip.
Wendell Graham volunteered for Saturday’s bird count and years from now may recall the first time she fell in love with it, too.
“Birding might not be for everyone, but it really opens your eyes to the tremendous variety of birds that are around you, even if they are only here for a short time as migratory birds,” she said.
Graham said birding was already a minor hobby for her, she had taken a two-week course in birding offered by Bob and Nancy Dean, of the Manatee Audubon. She heard about the official count while attending one of the local Audubon meetings.
“I loved the course I was taking and wanted to do more,” she said. “I also like to do things for my community, so I thought this was a good combination, and I really enjoyed it.”
Graham was a little concerned her “rookie” status would get in the way, but that wasn’t the case at all.
“One of the great things about being a novice is that you are surrounded by these incredibly helpful experts,” she said. “They help you every step of the way.”
Graham said she is definitely hooked, and will continue to volunteer for Audubon.
“I would encourage everyone, young and old to get involved with this,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun and you learn so much about our local birds and those birds who visit during migration. When you start to know what kinds of birds you are seeing, it gives you a whole new appreciation of our area.”
The official numbers from the Manatee County Audubon count were:
Black vulture: 9
Turkey vulture: 98
American kestrel: 1
Black-bellied Plover: 2
Snowy Plover: 1
Unknown gull: 40
Laughing gull: 22
Ring-billed gull: 80
Herring gull: 6
Lesser black-backed gull: 4
Unknown tern: 3
Forster’s tern: 1
Royal tern: 26
Rock pigeon: 1
Eurasian collared-dove: 43
White-winged dove: 1
Mourning dove: 29
Red-bellied woodpecker: 4
Downy woodpecker: 1
Fish crow: 31
Blue-gray gnatcatcher: 1
European starling: 13
Pine warbler: 1
Palm warbler: 15
Northern cardinal: 1
Common grackle: 46
Boat-tailed grackle: 30
American goldfinch: 1
Lesser scaup: 10
Common loon: 2
American white pelican: 53
Brown pelican: 209
Double-cr. cormorant: 11
Magnificent frigatebird: 1
Great Blue heron: 10
Great egret: 7
Snowy Egret: 1
Little blue heron: 1
Yellow-cr. night-heron: 1
White ibis: 32
Wood stork: 1
Bonner Joy contributed to this story.