Take a driving route that combines fine scenery with opportunities for bird-watching.
By Rhonda Ostertag
Birds are fascinating creatures. Some, as tiny as teacups, have the strength and stamina to fly 7,500 miles between Argentina and the Arctic in the spring, then reverse the route in the fall. They are colorful, songful, and comical. Who hasn’t whiled away an afternoon watching robins de-worm the lawn, or hummingbirds drain a feeder? Now we can plot our travels with birds, following the nation’s birding trail system.
The American Birding Association (ABA) recognizes nearly 60 birding trails in North America and Canada. Birding trails are driving routes that link key birding sites, both well-known and obscure, in a given area.
The trails got their start in Texas with the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, which opened in 1996. This trail was the brainchild of nature tourism expert Ted Eubanks and a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department employee named Madge Lindsay. Their idea coupled birding, one of the fastest-growing pastimes in North America, with scenic driving, another favorite, and it resulted in a surefire winner, benefitting travelers, birds, and communities.
Amateur birders enjoy these routes as much as experts. Motorhomers will be glad that the designated birding trails journey past public and private campgrounds and lead to forests, wetlands, parks, preserves, and sanctuaries. Many routes are near water. Hiking, canoeing, photography, picnicking, and sight-seeing all fit neatly with birding trail travel.
How do you find these routes? A good place to start is the ABA Web site, www.americanbirding.org. By going to the drop-down box under “Resources” you will find links to specific state routes. Contacting local and nationwide Audubon societies and specific state tourism agencies and fish and wildlife offices also will put you on the trail. State visitors centers typically have stocks of birding trail brochures, as do sites along the routes.
Detailed brochures and road signs guide you. Some sites have interpretive boards, blinds, and boardwalks. With trails in the Pacific, Central, and Atlantic migratory flyways, a visit timed to coincide with spring or fall migrations will make your checklists and counts go up. But lively encounters can be had year-round.
The Great Florida Birding Trail
What Texas put in motion sparked a fire of enthusiasm. With Florida’s long history as a birding destination, the birding trails system was a natural fit. So, for the past eight years the Sunshine State has been putting the finishing touches on the Great Florida Birding Trail.
Like intricate lace, 2,000 miles of roadway fashion this premier trail, which covers the entire state. It visits 489 birding sites, with new sites up for nomination. To manage this great wealth of opportunity, the Great Florida Birding Trail is broken into four sections: East, West, Panhandle, and South, each with a detailed brochure and gateway stops to orient visitors. Brochures identify sites, locations, seasons, hours, restrictions, and acceptable activities, plus name-drop some of the all-important feathered dignitaries (“VIBs,” if you will). But when you are traveling in a new area, even common local birds offer exciting and unfamiliar encounters.
To further simplify travel, each region’s birding sites are organized into clusters within an hour’s drive of one another, so you can make a mini tour. The statewide highway signage was nearly complete as of August 2008. With loaner binoculars available at the gateway stops, Florida has gone out of its way to make birding easy and accessible.
Florida’s great diversity of landscape, climates ranging from temperate to subtropic, and ample saltwater and freshwater locations accommodate an impressive gathering of winged species, resident and migrant. More than 500 bird species have been identified in the state. Songbirds, seabirds, birds of prey, waders, dabblers “” the elusive, the flamboyant, the rare, and the common “” all engage binocular-eyed seekers. No doubt you’ll be thumbing your bird identification book from cover to cover. Mangroves, cypress swamps, hardwood hammocks, areas of saw palmettos and longleaf pines, sand hills, prairies, salt marshes, freshwater springs, and gulf and ocean shores lend varied backdrops to sightings and shape-pleasing environs to explore.
Looking at the East Section of the Great Florida Birding Trail alone will give you a sense of the variety of places to stop. Sites we’ve visited include Kingsley Plantation; the St. Augustine Alligator Farm; Fort Matanzas National Monument; Washington Oaks Gardens State Park; Ocala National Forest; DeLeon Springs and Blue Springs state parks; Lake Woodruff and Merritt Island national wildlife refuges; the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey; Mead Gardens; Canaveral National Seashore; the Brevard Zoo; and Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. Are you breathless yet? Well, that list just brushes the bounty.
At Fort Matanzas we toured the historic fort and exchanged watchful looks with a nesting pair of great horned owls, and at Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge we walked the levee trails with black vultures hopping ahead of and behind us. Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge was a vacation in itself, beginning with its popular Black Point Drive (take it more than once if time allows) and its hiking trails, headquarters boardwalk nature trail, and sight-seeing stops. Roseate spoonbills, grackles, egrets, tricolored herons, anhingas, stalking storks, frog-eating rails, ibis, moorhens, and countless others kept our heads spinning and our discussions lively.
Gulls, terns, black skimmers, and gannets raised our excitement as we strolled Canaveral National Seashore. Warblers, wrens, and sparrows animated the shade canopies we sought out in midday. At St. Augustine Alligator Farm, we discovered that nesting wood storks, egrets, and tricolored herons apparently like the security system created by having American alligators below them. Photographers enjoy the uncommon proximity to the nesting birds afforded by the site’s boardwalks.
Wherever you point your motor coach in Florida, you are bound to find top-notch birding spots, among them Audubon Corkscrew Swamp, Ding Darling and St. Marks national wildlife refuges, and Fort De Soto State Park. Some of the fun, though, comes in finding the lesser-known locations, planting yourself on a bench, and letting the birds come to you. Disney Wilderness Preserve and Orlando Wetlands City Park (open February through October) are two. At the Wilderness Preserve, you can sit back in a porch rocking chair and watch wildlife happen.
While birding in Florida, it’s quite likely that you’ll come upon a secondary cast of characters: armadillos, alligators, butterflies, tortoises, raccoons, otters, dolphins, manatees, and more. Successful sightings come easy here.
For more information, contact the Great Florida Birding Trail, 620 S. Meridian St., 5B4, Tallahassee, FL 32399-1600; (850) 488-8755; www.floridabirdingtrail.com.
Chasing the Birds
Birding trails have led us across the western states of Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, and Montana. We’ve also traveled part of the Susquehanna River Birding Trail in Pennsylvania, the Great River Birding Trail along the Upper Mississippi River, and the Connecticut Coastal Birding Trail. But wherever we happen to find ourselves, we try to locate a nearby birding trail, because the stops always enrich our travels.
We’ve watched the mating dance of western grebes on Klamath Lake in Oregon and the morning takeoff of thousands of sandhill cranes on the Platte River in Nebraska. In Washington, we watched snowflakes swirl around wintering bald eagles perched on naked branches above the Skagit River and the confetti of snow geese lift off silent fields in Skagit Valley. Our eyes have traced the dizzying flights of swifts and swallows at Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge in Montana and tracked kettles of broad-winged hawks as they rode the thermals at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania.
We’ve passed entire mornings watching merganser chicks fatten up on salmonfly hatches and house finches weave a nest. At Washington’s Deception Pass, a great blue heron swallowed 50 small, silvery fish one after the other before we gave up counting. And the heron kept eating.
We’ve watched the bungling takeoffs and landings of young great gray owls. But it doesn’t always have to be fireworks . . . we’ve also delighted in the sparrows, wrens, and chickadees that have flitted about our camps and the jays that have scolded us.
On the nation’s birding trails, some sites and routes easily accommodate motorhome travel, while others are better suited for a passenger vehicle. Acquiring trail brochures in advance of your trip will give you a heads-up on what you may encounter, plus provide clues as to when to visit. If you have trouble mapping out trips, a birding trail just may be the way to go. We’ll see you out there.
Pink Floyd Played In Idaho
While traveling on Idaho’s Birding Trail well before it was officially called that, we encountered one of those unexpected surprises that made the trip memorable. Driving through Camas National Wildlife Refuge, we were racking up sightings of geese, ducks, trumpeter swans, a short-eared owl, moose, coyote, and white-tailed deer when we spied a strange flash of color across open water. Putting binoculars to eyes, I pronounced it to be a flamingo. “Very funny,” my husband said, as he grabbed the binoculars still around my neck to see for himself. What we initially thought must be a swan dye-marked for tracking indeed turned out to be a Chilean flamingo. But flamingos in Idaho? Well, at least one.
It was Pink Floyd, a flamingo that escaped from Utah’s Tracy Aviary in the late 1980s. Somehow this cagey bird, which became a bit of a celebrity as it wintered along the Great Salt Lake in Utah, flew the coop and succeeded living wild in the West for many years “” up until 2005, at least, when it was last seen.
On a birding trail, you never know what you’ll find.