FLORIDA KEYS -- The mangrove cuckoo may not be as bad off as scientists once thought. The foot-long bird is distinct from other cuckoos by its white tail spots and dark brown top. The bird isn't seen very often because it favors areas unreachable by humans, such as tangled mangrove forests.
During last week's Upper Keys Christmas Bird Count, Audubon of Florida scientist Peter Frezza spotted the mangrove cuckoo while boating near central Florida Bay.
It was the first time in 32 years that the species had been recorded during the annual count.
"It is a very rare find," Frezza said. "I've only seen a dozen or so in my entire life."
The count, known to birders as the CBC, is a nationwide event sponsored by the National Audubon Society to help monitor species that might need better protection. It runs from Dec. 14 through Jan. 5 in different locations across the country.
At Audubon of Florida's Tavernier Science Center, about 30 birders met up at 6:30 a.m. last Friday to hash out a final plan for the day-long Upper Keys count. Frezza, who organized the local count, called the attendance amazing.
"I am really shocked with the amount of response we've gotten," he said.
For one day a year, Audubon biologist Michelle Robinson puts away her fish experiments, pulls out the clip board, grabs the binoculars and scours the sky for flying creatures. Each bird identified is recorded.
A member of the Plantation Key-based research center, Robinson started last Friday's trek with a walk around Founders Park. From there, her group searched a piece of state-owned land behind the weigh station. Other stops included many neighborhoods along the ocean and bay. Along the way were songbirds and birds of prey. Near Founders Park, a hawk flying overhead scared many birds into hiding.
The group recorded many different species of warblers. Also making the list were cardinals, woodpeckers, pelicans, magnficent frigate bids, white-crowned pigeons and turkey vultures, to name a few.
While shore-based groups covered areas from Snake Creek to Key Largo, three boats on Florida Bay, including Frezza's, braved howling winds out of the northwest so counters could visit different islands searching for seabirds.
Given the unusually seasonal conditions, this year's count was down a bit compared to last year. The final tally for this year's Upper Keys CBC was 6,552 birds, down from 8,733 a year ago. But species counts were about the same with birders spotting 104 types, up just two from last year. Overall, the most common bird recorded was the brown pelican, coming in at 708.
But success is not measured in total numbers. Rather, the annual effort is about providing researchers with useful information.
"Zero birds is still data," said Michelle Davis, a birder from Homestead who frequents as many bird counts as she can.
Another birder, Tina Odenbaugh, also takes her counting seriously. She adds that it opens up whole new worlds for birders. Just recently her husband participated in a bird count in California's Sequoia National Park.
"Isn't it amazing that birding takes you places you normally don't get to see," she said inside a hardwood hammock on Plantation Key.
Geoff LeBaron, director of the nationwide CBC, said the counts show researchers which birds could be in trouble in the next two to three decades so proactive measures can be taken.
"We need to protect areas we think the birds will be in 20 or 50 years," LeBaron said.
For example, through the nationwide bird count, birders helped inform researchers that bald eagle numbers are climbing to safer levels. Locally, Audubon researchers are interested in following roseate spoonbill numbers, as the birds serve as an indicator species for a healthy Everglades.
This year's Christmas Bird Count was Audubon's 114th. Counts have been conducted in the Upper Keys since 1956.
Visit www.audubon.org and navigate to the CBC area of the webpage for more information about the count.