Birders' hearts soar on Audubon trip to Cockroach Bay

RUSKIN

As soon as the wagon pulled to a stop, the binoculars went up, the cameras started clicking and Bill Lamoureux began firing off bird names as if he were reading roll call from an avian field guide. ¶ "That's a great blue heron flying," he told about two dozen spectators piled in a truck-pulled wagon Sunday at Cockroach Bay Aquatic Preserve. Tampa Audubon Society tour participants aimed their lenses at a large freshwater marsh. ¶ "Kingfisher … tri-colored heron … little blue … Cooper's hawk … common gallinule. … Here comes an anhinga."

From across the wagon came another suggestion.

"American bittern? Did someone say American bittern?" asked Renae Nowicki of Temple Terrace, craning her head and standing on tiptoes. "You almost never see them."

Bird-watching has become big business, with hobbyists splurging on travel, lodging and meals to get a glimpse of elusive birds.

Americans spend about $5 billion a year watching and feeding birds, said Ray David of birdingbusiness.com.

Wildlife viewing, including bird-watching, pumped $3 billion into Florida's economy in 2006 and generated about 38,000 jobs, according to a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission study.

Cockroach Bay didn't make the list of bird meccas in the recently released movie comedy The Big Year, in which three amateur experts tear around North America trying to see or hear the highest number of different feathered species between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31. Locally, though, Audubon leaders said the Ruskin preserve is extraordinary, especially in winter, when thousands of birds that nest in cold climes migrate south and stop or stay in the recently restored wetlands.

Unlike the characters in the movie, no one in the Audubon group was trying to beat a bird-sighting record. But Lamoureux, 75, who led the tour, has seen about 4,000 species, most of them logged through world travel since he retired as a New York schoolteacher 20 years ago.

He said the movie brought back memories of Alaska's Attu Station, an abandoned Coast Guard outpost in the Aleutian Islands that draws avian aficionados because of the many rare species that flock there. Lamoureux said he spent two weeks in primitive accommodations there in 1991.

Tampa Audubon participants didn't have it that rough, but they did brave sandspurs and mosquitoes to trek through pines and palms in search of several kinds of warblers. Mary Keith, 64, a lifetime birder, said she was especially looking for a scissor-tailed flycatcher. The group didn't spot one Sunday.

Some participants, though, spied a great crested flycatcher, along with roseate spoonbills, reddish egrets, ibis, avocets, plovers, killdeer, kestrels, eagles, ospreys, scaups, wigeons and coots.

Most of the birders said their primary goal was to enjoy nature. But the birding bug bit Hanna Peterson, 10, of Dade City, who jumped up and down and repeated the bird names she heard as she tugged at her father's arm.

"Write it down!" she said. "Write it down!"

Preserve manager Richard Sullivan made it easy for people to record the birds they saw by passing out a checklist of more than 200 species that live or spend time at Cockroach Bay.

Lamoureux and Keith coached participants in ways to identify birds by a flash of color on the wing, whether they dip or soar in flight, and whether they shriek, squeak and squawk, or trill, whistle and coo.

The most memorable bird Lamoureux ever saw was the cassowary, spotted on a trip to Australia. "It's a 6-foot bird with silky black feathers and a big blue face and a crown on his head," the field leader said.

Adding birds to his inventory used to be a big thrill, but now he's more focused on the human species.

"At this stage of my life, it's the camaraderie," Lamoureux said as he walked a trail and scoured the skies. "It's all the people — there's a flying ground dove! — you can share your experiences with."

Reach Susan Marschalk Green at hillsnews@sptimes.com.

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Much of the Cockroach Bay preserve is closed to the public while construction workers complete a final stage of wetlands restoration. The preserve is expected to be fully open by early 2012. For information about the preserve, call (813) 671-7754. To connect with Tampa Audubon, call (813) 839-2742 or visit tampaaudubon.org. To find other Audubon chapters, visit Audubon of Florida's website, fl.audubon.org.

Birders' hearts soar on Audubon trip to Cockroach Bay 10/27/11 [Last modified: Thursday, October 27, 2011 5:30am]

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