NEW PORT RICHEY — Few things thrill bird watchers more than encountering a bird that’s not supposed to be there.
Members of the West Pasco Audubon Society hope to experience a few of those rare sightings Saturday when they participate in the annual Christmas Bird Count, which measures how well the avian population is getting along.
“Last year we saw a black tern, which happened to be migrating through,” said Peter Day, president of the Audubon chapter. “That was an unusual bird to see that time of year.”
It’s birding with a deadline, though. To be included in the Christmas count, a species must be spotted within a 24-hour period.
“It’s a bit of a rush in the sense you want to cover as much ground as possible to see as many birds as you can,” Day said. “It’s not leisurely. We usually start at dawn.”
A few birders begin even earlier, slipping into the woods after midnight and playing recordings of bird calls. If a bird responds, they can count it based on the call, even if they don’t see the bird.
Throughout the day, West Pasco Audubon Society members will count birds in a circle that is 15 miles in diameter and is centered at the Magnolia Valley Golf Course clubhouse in New Port Richey. The circle extends from the Pinellas County line north to Hudson Beach and east to encompass Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park. The western edge of the circle stretches into the Gulf of Mexico.
Participants, armed with binoculars and field guides, will scour woods and neighborhoods in search of wood ducks, cattle egrets, ospreys, least sandpipers, Eastern towhees and other species. In the afternoon, some members plan to board a charter boat called the Magic Dolphin so they can count birds off the coast.
At midday the birders will meet to eat lunch, tally their morning results, then head out again in search of any species they should have found but didn’t.
“If someone saw something unusual, several people will go to the site and see it again and confirm it,” Day said. “That happened last year when we saw the black tern.”
Some species uncommon in west Pasco that Audubon members hope to spy this year include the snow goose, the Northern pintail, the red knot, the ruby-throated hummingbird, the hairy woodpecker and the scissor-tailed flycatcher.
A year ago, the group spotted 170 species, just one fewer than in 2011. But the total number of birds counted, 32,749, was well below 2011 when the Audubon members tallied 53,510 individual birds.
Day said the overall number of birds counted isn’t that significant.
“Sometimes you get very, very large numbers,” he said. “Several years ago we had enormous flocks of robins. The actual number of birds doesn’t really mean very much because within the count circle, even if you have 30 to 50 people out counting during that time, you are unlikely to count more than 1 or 2 percent of the birds present.
“The important thing is: are species present or absent?”
This year marks the Audubon Society’s 114th Christmas Bird Count, though the Pasco group didn’t start participating until the 1970s.
The first count took place in 1900 when 27 birders, protesting an annual hunt, decided to count birds on Christmas Day rather than shoot them, according to the National Audubon Society website.
The society says birds are indicators of the overall health of the environment and that the data collected during the annual Christmas counts can provide insight into the long-term health of bird populations and the environment.
Although the event is called the Christmas Bird Count, it doesn’t have to take place on Christmas Day. Each Audubon chapter can choose when to hold its count, as long as the date falls from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5.