On the Saturday before Christmas every year, Alison Bishop of Living Walls makes a sacrifice so big that only other retailers can appreciate its magnitude. She takes the day off from work to answer the call of nature-specifically to lead an Audubon Society Christmas bird count team. From sunup to sundown, she, husband Mike and a couple of helpers make note of every bird they find from Stickney Point Road south to Blackburn Point Road, and from the waterfront to the railroad tracks east of U.S. 41. Last Christmas, that added up to 80 different species and 2,653 individual birds.

Birding is a way of life for Bishop, who since 1981 has managed the downtown home furnishings business her parents started in 1970. "Birding is something you can do anywhere, anytime, anyplace; it gives a continuity and a reference to life," she says. "In Florida we're very fortunate, we have great birds here all the time."

Armed with state-of-the-art Leica binoculars, she and Mike set off for favorite birdwatching places: Myakka River State Park, or maybe the celery fields off Palmer Road and Fort DeSoto, which she considers the best birding site on the west coast of Florida. Last year a spectacular rare fork-tailed flycatcher usually seen only in South America landed there, she says, and people flocked from all over the country to see it.

Right now, the Bishops are developing a bird habitat in their own backyard, and already they've sighted goldfinches, house finches, cedar waxwings, robins, a tufted titmouse and a yellow-bellied sapsucker.

"It's thrilling when you find something new," she says, "but unfortunately, the diversity is decreasing as development happens-a lot of what used to be natural habitat isn't anymore."

Bishop advises novices to grab a good field guide. "And there's nothing like talking to people, helping each other. You can learn so much over the Internet, even bird calls."

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