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South Florida's Fast-Changing Landscape Makes It Harder For Audubon To Count Birds

A migrating blue-headed vireo spotted Saturday during Tropical Audubon's Miami Christmas Bird Count.
Donna Marain
A migrating blue-headed vireo spotted Saturday during Tropical Audubon's Miami Christmas Bird Count.

As cranes continue to crowd South Florida’s skyline, birds of different feather are becoming increasingly hard to find.

On Saturday, birders and counters working with Tropical Audubon headed out for the first round of the annual Christmas Bird Count. The Audubon tradition launched in 1900 to turn the tide against hunting birds and tap into the burgeoning conservation movement. What participants found this year were fewer birds and a decline in good bird habitat.

Results won’t be finalized until the count ends in January, but early signs show another persistent trend: more invasive and less native birds.

“A lot of our native birds are no longer present,” said Dennis Olle, an attorney who’s helped organize the Miami count for 38 years. “You just can't find them in our urban environment. They've been replaced by large exotic birds from somewhere else, and significantly by parrots and parakeets.”

The news comes in a dismal year for birds. In September, a comprehensive new studypublished in the journal  Sciencefound that since 1970, 3 billion birds, or a third of the North American population, have vanished. Researchers found that common birds were just as likely to disappear as rare birds as habitats decline. The study also points to the importance of surveys like Audubon's: to create the database for the study, researchers used decades of data collected by citizen scientists.

In his nearly four decades of birding around South Florida, Olle said empty lots or open green space that used to provide habitat is getting harder to come by, especially in the last decade.

“The bigger landscapes have been lost,” he said. “The biggest areas now are places like Woodlawn Cemetery, which is a excellent birding site, and around the airport. When you think about it, those are the few open spaces that exist. I'm seeing more buildings, more concrete or asphalt.”

As South Florida grows, Olle said too little has been done to plan for birds in public spaces and little attention paid to what could be easy fixes.

“Just because something is green on a map doesn't mean that it's bird friendly at all,” he said. “With just a little bit of planning [they] can be much more bird friendly. In fact, the irony is leaving stuff alone is all you have to do in some places.”

The Miami count is centered around 79th Street and Biscayne Boulevard and extends 7.5 miles from the center. The zone was plotted before Olle took over and designed to include Greynolds Park and extend south to Coral Gables, west to the airport and east to Virginia Key.

While birds still abound, counters are more likely to see exotic parrots than the secretive Yellow Rail or the rusty Brown Thrasher, he said. Or the red-winged blackbird, one of North America’s most abundant birds and counted by the thousands in other places.

“On our count, we had one in my little area and that's the first time I've had it in 20 years,” he said.

The annual count is also struggling to draw a new generation of birders. The number has doubled to about 40 from Olle’s early days, but he said participation remains woefully low compared to other birding cities. An Oakland count he participates in draws about 200 birders.

He’s hoping that the hip city that draws music and art fans might also appeal to younger birders or urban adventurers interested in poking around South Florida's hidden corners. 

"All you need is a good pair of shoes, a pair of binoculars and a good attitude," he said. "Nature is close here. It’s in your backyard. It's in suburbia. It's driving down Eighth Street and stopping at a cemetery." 

Over the next month, counts will be held across Florida. More information is available at  www.tropicalaudubon.org and  www.audubon.org.

An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect range for the Miami count and decline in birds. A third of birds in North America, not the planet, have disappeared. The Miami circle is 15 miles across.

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.
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