Believe it or not, people will travel from all over the world to see a small, black-and-white bird that lives in the Croom Tract of the Withlacoochee State Forest.
Andy Wraithmell, who is originally from England, knows this for a fact because that's why he came to Florida more than a decade ago — to view red-cockaded woodpeckers.
He didn't come to Croom, east of Brooksville, because he didn't know it was a center of red-cockade woodpecker viewing and because — back in those early days of rebuilding the species' population in the forest — it really hadn't become one yet.
But it is now, and part of Wraithmell's job with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is to make people aware that red-cockaded woodpeckers and other highly sought birds live in this part of Florida — and that they're easy to see.
Think of the appeal to avid birders on family, theme-park vacations in Orlando who, understandably, are desperate for a break. After a drive of a little more than an hour, they can be walking through quiet stands of longleaf pines, adding new species to their lifetime lists.
"Eco-tourism on a plate" is what Wraithmell calls it. It's got promise as a tourism niche, he said — promise that is starting to be realized at this weekend's Nature Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival. (naturecoastfestival.wordpress.com)
It used to be called the Chinsegut birding festival, because it was all based at the Chinsegut Nature Center north of Brooksville. A lot of events still will be, but this year's festival also offers birding tours through other natural areas in Hernando, Pasco and Citrus counties. The bad news, if you're thinking of signing up, is that several of the tours are fully booked. But that's good news for the commission and anybody who hopes eco-tourism has a future here.
In fact, it seems as though Hernando's tourism industry in general is on a roll.
The Family Motor Coach Association — which had been threatening to move one if its big annual rallies to DeLand — announced this week that the event will remain at Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport. Then we learned the Florida Classic Clusters Winter Dog Show will return to Hernando next January after temporarily departing for Ocala.
I have nothing against these events and the people who get a kick out of beauty pageants for dogs or driving long distances in gas-guzzling vehicles for the chance to park next to a runway.
But forgive me for being partial to eco-tourism. I like that it creates a financial incentive to preserve the environment. I think it has more long-term potential than either of those other events.
A birding festival near Titusville draws about 6,000 people each year, Wraithmell said, and the Nature Coast festival could eventually do the same. This area offers one of the largest populations of federally threatened red-cockaded woodpeckers in peninsular Florida, as well as scrub jays, swallow-tailed kites and burrowing owls.
These species are desirable enough that they could attract not just opportunistic eco-tourists, but ones making special trips.
And if we can offer a break to some poor nature lover faced with another long day on International Drive, I figure we're doing the world a service.