Bird count highlights role of citizen science

A juvenile roseate spoonbill, center, looks for its breakfast along with some wood storks in a pond at the Hogeye Preserve.  The Christmas Bird Count began nationwide on Saturday and continues through Jan. 5.

Not all scientists wear lab coats. But you may find them in the park with binoculars as they survey how many birds and bird species inhabit the community. They may be contributing to homeowners’ general knowledge of basic botany. After rainy days, you may find them measuring rain gauges in their yards to determine how many inches of measurable rain fell. And, locally, their numbers are growing. Villagers play a critical role in contributing citizen science that supports empirical studies of their environment. “Seniors provide a wealth of experience and diverse talents, which can be extremely valuable to citizen science projects,” said Brooke Moffis, residential horticulture agent with the University of Florida’s Lake County Extension Office. “Their involvement communicates to a larger audience about the importance of experimental design, replication and eliminating bias, so the result is useful quality data.”

And one of the biggest days for generating that data is coming Friday, when Villagers will be among the world’s birders counting the number of birds found in their communities to support the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count.

Villagers also are volunteering in greater numbers with WVLG 102.7 FM & 640 AM’s team of weather watchers.

And master gardeners with the University of Florida’s Sumter County Extension Office are trained to offer residents expertise based on university research on how to deal with issues in their home gardens.

Bird counts

Spotting and identifying birds, as well as keeping lists of the number of birds seen at a given location, are commonly used to keep track of a birder’s progress.

This activity also is critical for scientific data.

That’s why members of the Village Birders participate in the Christmas Bird Count, a global survey of bird populations headed by the National Audubon Society, a nonprofit group devoted to bird conservation.

Interest in the count continues to grow, and the 120-year-old tradition boasted an all-time high of 2,615 circles worldwide last year, according to the Audubon Society.

It delivers information about bird species counts that may identify environmental trends affecting bird populations, like habitat destruction and degradation.

Ken Uslabar, a member of the Village Birders, participates every year in the Christmas Bird Count’s Emeralda/Sunnyhill circle. He’s part of a small group that traverses areas north of County Road 466 like Paradise Park and Lake Mira Mar to find birds.

The circle not only includes the northern Villages, but also Lady Lake, Fruitland Park and Leesburg, according to the Audubon Society.

“I’m driven to help the data,” said Uslabar, of the Village of Country Club Hills. “It’s what drives science. You can’t make a prediction or a hypothesis or give a theory unless you have the data to back it up.”

In years past, Uslabar’s group within the circle consisted of about five people. But this year he’s expecting 11.

During last year’s count, the Emeralda/Sunnyhill circle had 58 field counters who found and identified 112 unique species, according to the Audubon Society.

Barb Gay, one of the compilers for the circle and a Birders member, said she expects about 65 counters this year.

The circle typically has the nation’s highest count of purple gallinules, a colorful wetland bird that stands out because of its long yellow legs. Birders also counted about 300 cedar waxwings in the Emeralda/Sunnyhill region, among the top 5 counts for the species in Florida, according to the Audubon Society.

Local birders’ observations in recent years helped point out a nationwide decrease in bird populations, Gay said.

She pointed to research from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology published in September that found about 2.9 billion birds — or more than 1 in 4 birds — have disappeared across North America since 1970.

Bird counts also led Marianne Korosy, director of bird conservation for Audubon Florida, to identify another troubling trend: Fewer migratory birds are wintering in Florida

“If you’re a migratory bird, why fly further south than you need to to find food?” she said.

Bird counts in general are integral to continue detecting changes in bird populations as they occur, or if they occur, Korosy said.

“If you don’t have the data, you can’t see if change is occurring,” she said. “There’s no evidence without the count.”

Anyone interested in participating in the Emeralda/Sunnyhill bird count, which is Friday, should contact Gay by the end of the day today at stkite52@gmail.com.

UF/IFAS master gardeners

Birders aren’t the only ones providing local information. But for the UF/IFAS master gardeners, it’s more about public education.

And more volunteers are joining their ranks.

Master gardeners are trained volunteers who offer horticultural advice to county residents. In Sumter County, they do so through the twice-weekly Ask the Master Gardener Plant Clinics and monthly presentations on environmental topics in a speaker series, said Lisa Sanderson, Sumter’s master gardener coordinator.

Volunteers also spend at least two days a month tending to a demonstration garden at the extension’s Bushnell office, she said.

Basic knowledge of how plants grow is important to understanding Florida’s growing conditions, said Bobbi Leader, a Villager who just completed her first year as a master gardener volunteer.

“When people come to Florida, they don’t realize how different it is (to grow plants here),” said Leader, of the Village of St. James.

Other times, master gardeners volunteer their own backyards as laboratories.

That’s what Kate Dilts, of the Village of La Belle, did in 2017 when she deployed miniature, nonstinging wasps into a citrus tree in her backyard to test whether the wasps would be an effective biological control method against the Asian citrus psyllid.

The invasive insect causes citrus greening, a disease that plagued Florida’s orange growers since it was first discovered in the state in 2005.

Local interest in the UF/IFAS master gardener program in Sumter County has resulted in volunteer growth.

During the extension’s Dec. 12 master gardener appreciation luncheon, it was revealed Sumter’s master gardeners now count eight more volunteers following their graduation from a training program administered this fall.

To become a master gardener in Sumter County, residents must submit an application and go through a 12-week training process. The application process typically opens in the spring, while the training typically begins in late August. For more information, contact the extension office at 352-569-6862.

Weather Watchers

WVLG’s base of trained weather watchers also is growing.

Just two months ago, WVLG only had one weather watcher volunteer south of State Road 44.

Now there are six — the outcome of an extensive outreach effort to recruit new volunteers.

Volunteer weather watchers use tools such as rain gauges and weather stations to monitor and report weather trends that build the station’s daily forecasts and monthly climate outlooks.

Each member must have a National Weather Service-certified rain gauge installed at their homes, he said. It costs about $30 and can hold up to 6 inches of rain at a time.

Having more weather watchers — especially in the newest sections of The Villages — improves the accuracy and reliability of WVLG’s rainfall reports and monthly climatological surveys, said senior forecaster Dave Towle, of the Village of La Belle.

Tom Rafuse, the first weather watcher from the southern Villages, now serves as the group’s point contact for compiling the rainfall data that drives daily and monthly reports of average rainfall in the community.

His curiosity about the weather came from a different hobby — riding motorcycles.

“I started watching and observing weather data in order to determine the best attire to wear for a motorcycle ride and to be sure to avoid as much rain as possible during my travels,” Rafuse said.

He has an Ambient Weather WS-2902 Osprey weather station at his Village of Fenney home. It’s capable of tracking outdoor temperatures including wind chill and heat index, wind speed and direction, outdoor humidity, rainfall and the UV index, he said.

Like other parts of The Villages, neighborhoods south of SR 44 have so much weather variability that it requires numerous sources in each neighborhood for the most complete forecast possible, Rafuse said.

“The more weather watchers we have, the more accurate the weather reports,” he said.

Anyone interested in becoming a WVLG weather watcher may contact Towle at cflweatherwatchers@gmail.com.

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.