ST. PETERSBURG — From that gaggle of fearless geese constantly standing guard at Crescent Lake to the mysterious night heron that meanders in the grass at Northshore Park after dark and the roseate spoonbills hanging out in the watery ditches off Ulmerton Road, avians are a big part of the scenery anywhere in the city.
Birds help determine the health of the landscape and the critters that live there, researchers say, and their migration patterns can hint at changing weather patterns. That’s why each year several dozen environmentalists wake up well before dawn to count birds in Pinellas County as part of the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, a nationwide survey now in its 114th year.
Between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5, thousands of volunteers across the country peruse cities and towns, marking down every bird and bird species they see.
“Everything you see gets counted,” said environmental activist Lorraine Margeson, who helps coordinate the St. Petersburg Christmas Bird Count. “Everything that flies — except butterflies and bugs — you count.”
Volunteers start between 2 and 4 a.m., when they try to count nocturnal birds such as owls, for which they use a device that mimics their call. They then visually survey areas with known bird concentrations, such as Weedon Island Preserve or Clam Bayou. Audubon records for the 2012 count show 162 bird species were found in south Pinellas and 156 in north Pinellas.
Organizers say the work is crucial because knowing how bird concentrations fluctuate from year to year helps determine long-term environmental changes.
“Data from the Audubon Christmas Bird Count are at the heart of hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific studies and inform decisions by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of the Interior and the EPA,” Gary Langham, Audubon’s chief scientist, wrote. “Because birds are early indicators of environmental threats to habitats we share, this is a vital survey of North America and, increasingly, the Western Hemisphere.”
Margeson said she is seeing “some really scary trends” suggesting that shifting climate patterns could be affecting bird migration patterns, for example, warmer weather up north would mean birds wouldn’t have to travel as far south to search for food in the winter.
“Birds species that we used to get a lot of are not making it this far down,” she said.
Before this year, volunteers surveyed only mainland areas of north and south Pinellas. The south county survey was earlier this month, and the north county survey was this past weekend. This year, a third area — encompassing Fort De Soto Park, Egmont Key, Shell Key Preserve and reaching down into Manatee County’s Anna Maria Island — has been added and will be surveyed on Jan. 5. For birders, including these particularly avian-heavy locales, where rare birds such as least terns and red knots tend to congregate, is going to be huge.
“We are going to get data that we just never had,” Margeson said.