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The birds are coming and they'll be hungry

The weather up north is getting colder, which means that before too much longer, Florida's byways will be jammed with migratory creatures seeking the warmth of the state's winter sunshine.

No, not people, though they too will be en route. But where do you think the term snow birds came from? Why, from birds, who, like people, make annual sojourns to mild temperatures and ice-free habitats.

"They like it here, just like we do," said avid bird watcher Wally Smyth of Crystal River, who along with his wife Betty helped fuel the local Audubon Chapter when they moved here 10 years ago.

It's not hard to figure out why.

"They don't have as much problem finding food here as they do up north," Wally Smyth said. "Food is readily available here. If we have a freeze, it's only for a couple days."

And so, every year in late October and early November, the Smyths turn their binoculars skyward for a seasonal glimpse of species that do not make Florida their year-round home. Back only two weeks from a month-long trip to Europe, they already have spied a flock of cedar wax wings and a few wood storks.

In the coming weeks, as temperatures continue to drop up north, they expect to see more and more water fowl and other species heading this way.

"When it turns cold up north, about 40 degrees or so where you might have frost at night, is when feeding becomes a problem," Wally Smyth said. "That's when the birds head south. "I expect we'll start to see some birds coming through ahead of these fronts, or in back."

The Smyths put out a buffet sure to please several species _ sunflower seeds for the woodpeckers, thistle seeds for the smaller birds such as the goldfinch. The couple put out their hummingbird feeder on Thursday, but haven't had any visitors yet.

Though birds generally do not have trouble finding food in Florida during the winter, occasional frosts do pose potential danger. People who stock feeders in their yards create a dependency by the birds upon their offerings, and should be sure to continue feeding during the coldest snaps when insects are least likely to be plentiful. Also, keep water available.

Anyone willing to day-trip for a bird-watching delight might want to check out Payne's Prairie south of Gainesville in late November or early December. The preserve is noted for having one of the largest winter populations of sand hill cranes on the East Coast.

"There won't be a single one here one night, and the next morning they'll be here," Ranger Howard Adams said.

The cranes migrate from the Great Lakes area and from Canada.