The snowbirds are back in Florida. Not only the ones who arrive on four wheels, but the feathered kinds, with colors and warbles that have the bird-watchers of the world all atwitter.
"There's the crested caracara — we've found them near Canoe Road. And the whooping cranes, just to know we've seen a few of them here in Florida, that's exciting," says Pam Weiss, a longtime Tampa birder.
Yellow-rumped warblers, American coots and white pelicans have flown down for the winter and have been spotted by binocular-wielding birders.
Birding, the new term for bird-watching, is a growing hobby around the world, according to Dave Goodwin, president of the Florida Ornithological Society. His is one of several state groups that promotes the pastime and seriously studies birds.
The American Birding Association's most recent membership numbers show 20,000 birders nationwide, though Goodwin says the figures are somewhat misleading.
"There's no way to know how many birders there are," he says. The hobby encompasses everyone from people who put up backyard feeders to serious birders who "run all over to spot the rarities."
He says the growing interest in birds is fueled by easy access to information, thanks to computers and smartphones, and by the equally fast-growing hobby of digital photography.
"There are the large numbers of folks who show up at birding festivals — Florida must have close to a dozen now, with the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival in Titusville, which begins Wednesday, being the largest in the entire country." And with so many great places to spy birds in Florida, a weekend getaway to a prime spot or to an upcoming bird festival might earn a spot on your calendar.
Prime birding in Florida
Florida is known among enthusiasts around the world as one of the prime areas in North America for spotting hundreds of species of birds. As part of the Atlantic Flyway, the state is a major layover stop for migratory waterfowl and other birds headed for the Caribbean or points south in fall and winter, and back again in spring and summer.
Other birds stop here for the winter, nesting in the mild clime where food sources are abundant.
There are 30 chapters of the Audubon Society in Florida. Paul Gray of Audubon of Florida says the state is considered one of the biggest in the country for bird study.
"It's amazing how many birds are in our neighborhoods. You don't even realize they're there until someone shows you how to find them," he says. "We're unique, far enough south in America where you find birds you can't find anywhere else in the United States."
Birds like the Everglades snail kite, the limpkin, the Florida scrub jay and a mottled duck are examples of unique-to-Florida birds.
Weiss and others look forward to the fall and winter months, when the bird population and number of unusual species jump. But any time is good for spotting birds in Florida, the New Jersey native says. "To be able to drive around and bird year-round takes my breath away."
She's able to spot numerous birds within walking distance of her house near Lettuce Lake Park in Tampa. "You can almost always see a nesting pair of wood ducks, an eagle, tons of ibis, lots of roseate spoonbills and sparrows," she says.
She doesn't have far to go to hit one of the biggest birding areas on the Southwest coast, Fort De Soto Park. "There are a number of places to stop and bird along the way," Weiss says. "There are ponds on the right side of the road toward Pass-a-Grille where you can see hundreds of migrant waterfowl and shorebirds."
Ann Paul of the Florida Coastal Islands Sanctuaries, an Audubon Society affiliate, works with shorebirds that nest in colonies near there, like herons, brown pelicans, plovers, egrets and gulf terns.
They can't hide their nests — they're all large birds, so they typically choose to nest on small islands to avoid predators. Paul helps to protect those nests and the habitats from human intruders as well as other egg-eating animals by patrolling the preserves and teaching awareness to visitors.
She marvels at the numbers of birds in the state. "Almost anywhere in Florida you go, there's spectacular birding. There are over 500 species in the state of Florida that have been identified."
Birders take pride in showing off the resident birds to visitors — barred owls, purple gallinules, the great blue heron, red-shouldered hawks or ibis — or others like the snail kites or the Northern parula found only in specific areas.
But it's the unusual species seldom seen here that get the birders ready to gear up and hike out to see them. Many hope for a good storm to blow in and carry with it the birds blown slightly off their migratory course.
A competitive sport at times
Judi Hopkins, president of the St. Petersburg Audubon chapter, is a longtime birder who welcomes those strays.
She recently heard that a red-breasted nuthatch has been spotted in the area. It's in from Canada's Newfoundland area — a somewhat rare visitor from a long distance. She hopes to catch a glimpse of it.
Hopkins joined her late husband, Larry, when he hosted birding tours for local and international birders. The couple were a prominent name in birding for years and helped many fill in blanks on their "life lists."
"It's a sport. What you do is have a list that you keep. It's your life list. Every time you see a bird you've never seen before, you put down the place and date you saw it and species. It's a competition to see who can get the most on their list. It can be quite competitive at times."
The adrenaline rush for rare-bird spotting was fueled by the 2011 movie The Big Year that chronicled the quest of three birders (Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black) trying to best one another at finding the rarest birds in the world for their life lists.
Birding takes little equipment to participate, making it appealing for people of all ages and economic levels. "You can travel all over the world and all you have to take is your binoculars," Hopkins says.
Some birders will spend thousands on spotting scopes with high-powered optics, too, though a good pair of binoculars, preferably waterproof, will suffice for most.
Though some don't bother with lists, it's still a thrill to spot a rare bird out of its normal habitat, and the hunt itself is part of the excitement, Hopkins says.
Many in the Tampa Bay area consult a popular website run by Ron Smith.
Smith, a police officer and avid birder from Brandon, set up the site pinellasbirds.com to help other birders glimpse feathered rarities by collecting reports and photos from area spotters. The site's popularity and immediacy are a testament to the new techno age of birding.
He posted a story last month about a boat captain who spotted an unusual bird on his mast. Through a cellphone photo, a birder and fellow boat captain nearby determined that it was a rare red-footed booby. With a digital camera, Capt. Stan Czapliki, out of St. Petersburg, was able to capture the first sighting of this species in the area since 1963.
"Years ago, I'd drop a dime or a quarter in a pay phone and we'd have a phone circle," Smith says. "A few birders might show up in half an hour or later. Now you can call or text anyone directly from the field. Everyone's got a cellphone."
Today's birders are just as likely to come to a hike with a digital camera and long lens as they are binoculars, Smith says. "It's hard to take a bad photo today. It used to be I might take a whole roll of film and wait for it to be developed to get the best photo of a bird. Now you can take 500 pictures of a bird and it costs nothing. Pick out the best one and post it online instantly," he says.
That verifies sightings and keeps birders' stories in check, he says. "Now, when you report spotting a particular species, you have a picture to prove it."
Some birders are reluctant to share sightings, but birding reports are key to conservationists who work to preserve the birds' natural habitats.
Numerous organizations have bird rescue facilities throughout the state, and many state parks promote birding with educational pamphlets and guides.
Margaret England, president of the Hendry Glades Audubon Society, lives in LaBelle and coordinates birding tours to artificial wetlands on South Florida Water Management land. At STA-5, south of Clewiston, she handles reservations for touring what she calls "the birding oasis of South Florida."
"It's a wonderful habitat," she says. "During the Christmas (bird) count, we usually report the highest numbers of some species in the U.S., like the purple swamp hen and fulvous whistling duck. During February's Great Backyard Bird Count, in the Clewiston area, it's top 10 for the most birds totally counted — not the most species, but most birds."
The Great Backyard Bird Count is a national program calling for birders and everyday backyard bird-watchers to observe their own feeders and report the birds hanging out at them. Lake Okeechobee birders are particularly active, and the Big "O" Birding Festival in mid-March attracts top bird experts for lectures, photo lessons and more.
This and other birding festivals also help promote conservation and ecotourism, a moneymaker for the state.
The Great Florida Birding Trail, a self-guided 2,000-mile highway trail leading to 500 birding sites around the state, was established by the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for awareness and to attract visitors to observe Florida's unique ecosystems.
But conservation is a "mixed bag," Goodwin says. While state and local governments have spent a great deal to protect endangered lands in the past 30 years, there's a renewed battle for programs going forward in a tighter economy.
He's encouraged by the number of new birders he sees. "When I got active in birding in the early '70s, maybe 10 or 25 people would show up to see a rare bird. Today, hundreds might show up."
Some are inspired by the birds of prey, since many are the easiest to spot in the skies.
Like others, Hopkins still gets excited seeing the bald eagles that the Audubon Society and others helped rescue from near extinction. Florida has the largest population of nesting bald eagle pairs in the country, outside Alaska.
"It's so phenomenal seeing that bird in the air, or perching, knowing what it's gone through," she says. "I've been known to pull off the road and just watch them. Its call is not so sweet, kind of in between a tweet and a screech. But it just never ceases to amaze me."
Jan Norris, a longtime journalist at the Palm Beach Post, is now a freelancer writer based on Florida's east coast. She blogs about Florida food and travel at jannorris.com.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: The annual Great Backyard Bird Count is Feb. 15-18. And Fort De Soto Park is run by Pinellas County.