Bird watching by the numbers
By Bill Eaton
Among the most avid of outdoorsmen are the birdwatchers.
While they may not be outdoor sports people in the usual sense, they do take their outdoor activity very seriously and spend many hours out in the field. They actually hunt birds with great dedication and devotion. However their hunting is done with binoculars and cameras, not firearms or bows.
For most birdwatchers, their other outdoor activities led to the fascination with getting close-up views of various birds. Usually the large predators such as eagles and hawks first caught their eye. For others it was the bright red cardinal or the blue jay in the back yard that got them interested. Then a trip along the coastal areas showed the great variety of wading birds that find a home in Florida. Yes, Florida, because of its mild climate, is a year-round birder’s paradise.
Fortunately, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FFWCC) published several booklets that will help both novice and advanced birdwatchers in finding new species. Two of these booklets cover the Central Florida area. The East Section covers Jacksonville to Fort Pierce and the West Section covers from Perry/Lake City to Bradenton. According to the West Section booklet, there are three significant clusters of birding activity in Hernando County. They are the (I) Eagle and Osprey Cluster, (K) the Green Swamp Cluster, and the (L) Gulf Migrants Cluster.
Within each of these clusters are several birding sites.
One of the largest sites along the coastal area is at the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area (WMA), part of the Eagle and Osprey Cluster (I) to the west of U.S. 19, about 9½ miles north of Weeki Wachee and S.R. 50. This property includes sandhill, flatwoods, and cypress swamp areas. Here you are likely to find warblers, pileated woodpeckers and floodplain birds as well as eagles and ospreys along the remote coast. You may also see wild turkey as there are many that roam this area.
The first thing is a county road map to show you all the infrequently traveled back roads that lead to interesting places.
To tell you what you are looking at, you’ll also need a good bird book. Any of the books put out by the Audubon Society are an excellent place to start. You may also find a good selection of birding books at larger book stores.
More than 470 bird species are found in Florida, so you’ll need a way to tell one from another. One very good book is the Golden Field Guide “Birds of North America”. This guide shows illustrations of birds at rest and in flight. Also the different winter and summer plumage and colorings of adult and young, male and female are shown. Range maps of the species show where you may expect to see it.
While identifying a mature bald eagle or great blue heron is easy, it is far more difficult to select the correct species of warbler or gull. A field guide is a necessity.
Most birders carry a notebook in which to write down what they see, and also where and when they saw it. As each new species is recorded, it is added to their “Life List”. Many people take vacations just to add new birds to their Life List. Some of these people have compiled an impressive list over the span of many years.
The next thing you’ll need is a good pair of 7x50 binoculars or a spotting scope with a tripod. You can pay from $60 to more than $2500 for optics to help you see better. You need to see well in order to make a positive identification. A good starting point would be in the $150 range. Although that may seem expensive, that is about all you need to buy, that you do not already have, for this outdoor activity. You’ll also want a good pair of hiking shoes, because you’ll be spending a lot of time on your feet.
When going out on the trail, be sure to take ample water, sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat. For wary birds such as turkey, you may even want camouflage clothing.
As you get into it, you may want to add a camera with a telephoto lens. Of course that adds to the expense, but you get to show off your birding and photography skills to others. It also leaves no question as to species identity when you have a photo to prove it.
For local bird watching information, contact Audubon of Florida at 797-3545.
...enjoy your experience bird watching...