BROOKSVILLE — It is a peaceful morning at Chinsegut Nature Center, save for the call of the wild that has caught the attention of expert birder Andy Wraithmell. With nary an upward glance, Wraithmell rattles off the names of some of the chatterers, identifying each by its distinctive song.
"There's a cardinal going, 'Cheer, cheer, cheer!' There's a fish crow, a goldfinch, a chickadee and a white-eyed vireo," he said before turning his gaze to the trees above. "And there's a red-bellied woodpecker that's actually getting frisky," he says, pointing to the black and white bird with a crowning of red plumage chasing its female counterpart.
Take a closer look through Wraithmell's binoculars, and he promises you'll be hooked.
He should know. That's how it started for him when he was just a lad in Liverpool, England, tagging along on his dad's birding trips where the species differ, but are equally captivating.
"Birding can take you to so many places," Wraithmell said. "Into the woods, to the mountains, the oceans, the desert — even the Arctic and Antarctic."
And Florida, too.
Wraithmell was on a birding vacation here with his dad in the early 1990s when he met his wife, Julie, who is a wildlife policy coordinator for Audubon Florida. Now he's employed with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and spends a fair amount of time traversing the state as an information specialist for the self-guided Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail that actually winds 2,000 miles through the state. He's been helping organizers prepare for the March 22-24 Nature Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival at Chinsegut and other preserves in Hernando, Pasco and Citrus counties.
The event, formerly known as the Chinsegut Birding and Wildlife Festival, is in the midst of a growth spurt that organizers hope will one day rival the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival held in January in Titusville. Space Coast attracts 5,000 to 6,000 birdwatchers, Wraithmell said, and lots of ecotourism dollars. Last year's festival at Chinsegut brought about 750 attendees, said Hernando tourism coordinator Tammy Heon, but more are likely with expansion into Pasco and Citrus counties.
"We're going to work the inlands of the Nature Coast as a start," said Ed Caum, spokesman for Pasco County's Office of Tourism Development, adding that plans include expanding along the coast to Cedar Key.
The Nature Coast festival promises a family-friendly venture, appealing to birders collecting species for their life list and novices wanting to learn about birds in a natural habitat. The three-day festival is hosted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Audubon Florida, Citrus County's Tourism Development Council, Hernando's Tourism Bureau and Pasco's Tourist Development Council.
Those who go might catch sight of anywhere from 200 to 300 species, including stop-overs such as the swallow-tailed kite, summer tanager, American goldfinch and colorful northern parula, and endemic birds such as Florida's sandhill crane and scrub jay.
A biodiversity presentation by nature photographer-illustrator Reinier Munguia, is 7 to 9 p.m. March 22 at Pasco-Hernando Community College in New Port Richey. (Suggested donation $10.)
"He's very funny . . . he loves to teach people about all kinds of wild stuff," Wraithmell said.
Other activities include a wildlife photography field trip, a bird banding presentation, family nature hikes, geocaching, landscaping for wildlife and an evening Bat and Owl Prowl.
Many activities are free. Others range from $3 for various birding and butterfly tours, to $25 for a two-hour river cruise on the Withlacoochee, to a $75 all-inclusive day-long field trip to observe endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers, pine warblers, eastern meadowlarks, southeastern American kestrels and more.
Vendors will be at Chinsegut selling binoculars, nature books, Florida plants, food and drinks. Advance registration is required for some programs and field trips. Space is limited and some are filling up fast, Wraithmell said, noting that some attendees will be flocking in from far-away places such as Canada and Australia.
"We've got field trips and programs that cater to everybody," he said. "All of the guides are very well educated and good communicators. There will be easy access and lots and lots of birds."
Michele Miller can be reached at [email protected]