Local birdwatchers will spread across Alachua County on Sunday for the 122nd annual Christmas Bird Count, straining their eyes and ears to identify different species.
The National Audubon Society hosts the count every year, and Alachua County’s chapter of the organization comes out in force for the event.
Andy Kratter works as the collections manager of ornithology at Florida Museum of Natural History. He also coordinates the Christmas count in Alachua County.
He said Gainesville has an incredible birdwatching community that covers the area well, with more than 100 people participating in the count. Those birders will get an early start on Sunday, Gainesville’s selected day for the count.
While the nationwide count lasts from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5, each individual area, which covers a 15-mile diameter, picks a single day within that timeframe for its count. Birdwatchers then catalog the birds they identify from midnight to midnight.
Kratter said birders will rise in the early morning hours to listen for owls or whippoorwills. Birders rely on sound rather than sign during the pre-dawn hours, and once the sun rises, these nocturnal birds disappear while a host of early birds start searching for worms.
The event is highly organized, Kratter explains, with the entire area divided into 11 sections. Participants focus on their section to ensure the entire area gets covered.
Some watchers wait at home feeders and clock the birds who come for a snack. Kratter takes a boat out to his assigned section: Newnans Lake.
He said his favorite part might be sunset on the lake when the gulls start showing up. During the day, the birds scavenge for food in parking lots, dumps and elsewhere before returning.
“As you’re sitting there in the middle of the lake on a boat, the gulls start coming in,” Kratter said. “And you can have a swarm of a couple of hundred gulls flying around.”
As they swarm, Kratter says you try to spot one of a couple rare gulls that might appear among the bunch. About five years ago, Kratter spotted a rare Lesser Black-backed Gull, the first one recorded in Alachua County.
He tries to spot gulls that typically stay to the coast but visit Gainesville on occasion.
Kratter estimates that 90 percent of the gulls spotted in the area are Ring-Billed Gulls. So spotting a Laughing Gull, Herring Gull or Franklin’s Gull is something special.
And seeing a super rare Less Black-Backed Gull? Well, that’s the “cherry on top.”
The thrill of spotting a rare bird for the area propels a lot of bird watchers. Some will explore their assigned section days before the count to get a feel for the area and search for rare birds they want to include in the count.
“Birding is always exciting because you never know what you’re going to find,” Kratter said.
The excitement and possibilities drive birders. Plus, the activity gets people into the nature Florida provides, instead of just shopping malls and theme parks.
The Christmas count also has scientific benefits, creating a snapshot or census of birds during the winter. With tens of thousands of birdwatchers collecting data across North and South America, scientists can access a lot of information that covers the continent.
“As it has grown, it has become a much better resource,” Kratter said.
Kratter said an ornithologist studying the impacts of urbanization or climate change can parse through the data sets. A study can even zoom into a particular area, like Alachua County, and see the shifts in birds over a span of decades.
For example, birdwatchers in 2020 logged 185 Northern Mockingbirds in the Alachua County circle, up over the year before by 17.
As for European Starlings, the Gainesville count spotted 11 in 2019 and 22 in 2020.
The Christmas count data is open to everyone online.
Kratter said one of the most interesting statistics for birdwatchers is the number of species recorded in the area. His area reported 162 in 2020, the second highest in Florida.
“The number that is interesting to most birdwatchers is the number of species, the diversity,” Kratter said.
He noted that it’s unusual for an in-land count to log a higher number of species than the coast because the coastal areas draw from both in-land birds and coastal ones.
But Alachua County has such a diversity of habitat, and such a good birding community, that the area records a high number of species.
Overall, Kratter said the top areas in America are Florida, Texas and California as birds abandon northern states for the warmer south.
“Go up to Massachusetts, almost everything up there leaves during the winter because it’s just too bloody cold,” Kratter said.