The Florida Scrub-Jay is a federally-listed endangered species because its preferred habitat is often cleared for development and agriculture. Photo by Barb Gorges.
Published March 8, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Florida full of great birds and people.”
By Barb Gorges
Last month, I had a chance to visit Florida’s birds a second time.
And I learned what it is like to have a nemesis bird—the reddish egret—that eluded me again despite visiting the right habitat at the right time with 40 people on the lookout.
Mark and I took part in a Reader Rendezvous weekend at Titusville, Florida, sponsored by Bird Watcher’s Digest, www.birdwatchersdigest.com, a bi-monthly birding magazine read worldwide and celebrating its 35th year of publication.
Editor Bill Thompson III, son of the founders, was one of the weekend’s event team members which included six magazine staff—all birders–and three local experts.
Having only 34 participants meant the birding experts were easily available for questions and to help spot birds. Although it was billed as a weekend for beginners, many of us were experienced, though not so much with Florida birds.
About a year or so ago I noticed Bird Watcher’s Digest was beginning to offer these Reader Rendezvous trips. Among them, one featured their humor columnist on a trip to the famous Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota in winter (you needed humor to enjoy the temperatures), and another with optical experts to try out a variety of binoculars.
I asked Bill how the idea for the Reader Rendezvous weekends came about. He said he has been a speaker and field trip leader at birding festivals for 20 years and was looking for another way to reach readers. He said, “I love to show people birds.”
Bird Watcher’s Digest Reader Rendezvous participants in Florida share the shore of Lake Kissimmee with airboats while looking at the federally endangered snail kite. Photo by Barb Gorges.
Mark and I met several folks who had been on previous weekends, but they didn’t strike me as groupies, though I have to say Bill has amusing takes on the birding life. What is appealing is the event team’s interest in every participant, learning our names and asking often if we were enjoying ourselves.
The other participants were pleasant people who enjoyed the intense weekend of birding. And they didn’t mind indulging Bill in his requests for group selfies. We even agreed to look silly doing “lifer dances.”
The three days (Mark and I opted for the additional Friday trip) wore everyone out, but since all of us had invested time and money to be there, I heard no complaints about meeting the bus at 5:30 a.m. each day. At least we got a break on Sunday-—6:30 a.m. instead.
The Space Coast of Florida (area code 3-2-1, no kidding!) is known for the Kennedy Space Center, and among birders for the Space Coast Birding Festival held mid-January.
While it seemed like the ducks had mostly migrated by the time we arrived Feb. 20, the group still logged 123 species over three days. I documented only 104 because sometimes the group split up. But of those, 13 were life birds for me, bird species I’ve never seen before.
We had a list of target birds—those that were advertised and those requested by participants.
On Friday, we went in pursuit of the red-cockaded woodpecker, a federally-listed endangered species that makes a brief appearance at dawn when leaving its nest hole in a longleaf pine. The March-April 2015 issue of Audubon magazine (see it at http://www.audubon.org) has an excellent article detailing its life history and population ups and downs.
The half-mile hike in the dark and cold (frost on the grass in Florida!) was worth the minutes we were able to watch the small black and white woodpeckers.
Another target bird we saw in that same piney woods was the Bachman’s sparrow, a species of concern that benefits from habitat work done for the red-cockaded woodpecker.
The Florida scrub-jay, a federally-listed threatened species, is easy to find. We saw three sitting in treetops. Harder to find are the remnants of its necessary habitat, oak scrub.
The Wood Stork is a federally-listed species that doesn’t mind well-behaved birdwatchers. Photo by Barb Gorges.
While waiting in line at a potty stop, everyone got a long look at another threatened species, the wood stork. Three of the enormous birds scrutinized us from a nearby tree.
Our first look at the crested caracara, a threatened hawk, was fuzzy, but the next day it swooped over our heads. The endangered snail kite, another hawk, required a spotting scope to be identified.
Perhaps this weekend should have been billed as the “Threatened and Endangered Species Tour.”
At any given birding festival we might have done as much birding, but in the course of several separate excursions with different people each time. With the Reader Rendezvous format, not only did we become acquainted with new birds, we made new birding friends. We may meet up again on another Reader Rendezvous, or here in Cheyenne since some folks were thinking about heading west.
While the weekend was somewhat of a marathon, the equivalent of three of our all-day Cheyenne Big Day spring bird counts plus two evening programs like our Audubon chapter’s monthly meetings, my binocular hand-eye coordination is all warmed up now and I’m ready for spring migration.