A Town of Fort Myers Beach staff member participated in an annual holiday tradition that dates back to the 1900s.
Town Environmental Sciences Coordinator Keith Laakkonen took part in the 114th annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count on Dec. 14 and again on Dec. 16.
The actual counting of birds is a more civil way than the old-fashioned style that involved shot guns. Thanks goes to the Audubon Society for the more modern, alternative method.
"The whole point is to get people to enjoy birds instead of shooting them," said Laakkonen. "Up to that point, there had been an annual tradition around Christmas where people would go out to the fields and try to shoot as many birds and as many species as possible."
Laakkonen stated the Christmas Bird Count began in different areas around the country then spread to Canada and other places in North America, South America and Central America. The process involves teams of people assigned to "circles" within a designated area.
"What happens is a point is set up and a circle is drawn around it," he said. "Different teams will try to count every different species and every single bird that they can find."
Laakkonen stated Lee County is covered by three circles as well as one circle that intersects from Collier County and another from Charlotte County.
To get a feel for the whole procedure, Laakkonen decided to participate in the Sanibel bird count on his own time on Saturday, Dec. 14. He said he joined a team of five from Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation for a three-hour survey that recorded 42 species and 391 total birds.
"Basically, we worked from Tarpon Bay Road to Rabbit Road," said Laakkonen. "We hiked a lot of back trails in that area and tried to count everything we could. First thing in the morning, one of the first birds I saw was three black scoters in the eco-tour area of Tarpon Bay. Black scoters are usually really unusual birds to find down here. But, last year, we noticed them and this year they showed up again. They are stocky sea ducks that dive and are typically found in the Arctic. That was a good start."
Laakkonen figures his team walked and drove 10 miles during their expedition. The rest of the teams covered the rest of Sanibel and some of Pine Island.
"It takes a lot of people to pull this together," he said.
Then, on Monday, Laakonen joined another team that covered the northern section of Estero Island -an area from Bowditch Point to Crescent Beach Family Park.
"The count wasn't spectacular, probably because Monday was a cool, breezy day," said Laakkonen. "But we did find 27 piping plovers at Bowditch Point. They are federally endangered species. Finding that number on a wintering area was really exciting. It shows the population is coming back."
The Town scientist stated piping plovers usually breed in the Great Lakes area and along the Atlantic Coast from North Carolina to Cape Cod. They then come south to rest.
"Those wintering grounds are really important for those birds to rest and stock up on their fat preserves for their flight back," he said.
Audubon Society calls the Christmas Bird Count "the longest running Citizen Science survey in the world" as it provides critical data on population trends. Data from the more than 2,300 circles are entered after the count and become available to query under the Data & Research link of its website at www.birds.audubon.org .
"The point of the count is used as an index so that scientists can look at these numbers over time," said Laakonen. "That way, scientists can actually track population trends of these different birds throughout their range."
Spending time with birders who care about conservation was special for Laakkonen.
"'They are really interested in doing everything they can to conserve these species," he said. "By participating in the Christmas Bird Count, they can provide this information to scientists so they can better understand how these species are doing."
It is the first time a Town employee has been involved in the conservation count.
"We are hoping this is the beginning of a long tradition," said Laakkonen.