Winter in Florida is well-known for attracting "snowbirds" — human visitors drawn to the state's warmth and sunshine. But, of course, there are also the original snowbirds — hundreds of migratory species that take up temporary residence to escape the cold.
This makes March the ideal time to grab a pair of binoculars and a bird book to spy the various species as they make their way northward. It's also a perfect time for the second annual Nature Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival.
The annual event, which includes a festival Saturday at the Chinsegut Nature Center in northern Brooksville, has grown to include field trips and programs throughout Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties running Thursday through Sunday.
"Florida is very unique," said Andy Wraithmell, wildlife information specialist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "Winter (in Florida) has more species of birds than at any other time of the year."
Wraithmell has coordinated more than two dozen field trips, including searching for specific migratory birds, such as black rails or swallow-tailed kites, checking Citrus County hot spots for numerous bird species, looking for nuthatches and sparrows, and kayaking on the Chassahowitzka.
The trips are led by numerous experts, including four with noted birder Greg Miller, who is "one of the most famous birders in the world," said Joe Murphy, FWC regional volunteer coordinator. "It's a really exciting opportunity."
Murphy said there has been excellent feedback about the field trips. Many more have been added this year, including outings led by experts from Audubon groups in Pasco, Hernando and Citrus. He also said trips led by Wraithmell are not to be missed, as "he is one of the most amazing birders I've ever met."
Despite the additional trips, they were 65 percent full by the end of last week. And whereas last year's event drew about 160 participants, this year already more than 255 have signed up.
The festival also features three keynote speakers.
On Thursday, author and Tampa Bay Times columnist Jeff Klinkenberg will share his Florida explorations, as well as sign copies of his newest book, Alligators in B-Flat.
On Friday, biologist Mark Kiser will discuss Florida's bats and then lead participants to watch as Brazilian free-tailed bats leave their roost on the grounds at the nature center.
The highlight of the weekend will be an appearance by Greg Miller Saturday at the Palace Grand in Spring Hill where he will discuss his birding experiences. In 1998 he traveled 130,000 miles throughout the continent to view more than 700 species. It was documented in the 2004 book The Big Year, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Mark Obmascik, and later made into a movie.
Those who have never been birding or are new to the hobby are encouraged to participate in the Wings Over Florida program that Wraithmell will present Friday. It teaches the skills needed to identify birds and encourages exploration.
Although the class is expected to fill up, Murphy said it will be offered again in Brooksville in the next several months.
Murphy also encourages families to take full advantage of Saturday's daytime events at the nature center. "Mystery of the Sandhill" allows children to become wildlife investigators, putting clues together to solve the mystery. Some of the activities include detecting animal signs and tracks and dissecting owl pellets. Visitors can also meet wildlife biologists, watch a prescribed fire demonstration and see live reptiles and amphibians.
"It's a great time for families," Murphy said of the purpose of the festival, "connecting the public with nature and the idea of conservation, how valuable these species are, and how valuable it is to protect them here in the Nature Coast."
Phyllis Day can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.