Bird watchers flock to North Central Florida havens
Published: Saturday, August 1, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 31, 2009 at 2:11 p.m.
The 2,000-mile Great Birding Trail cuts across the state, bringing bird watchers to the best locations to view some of the most rare and beautiful winged species.
Florida Bluebird Society
On Aug. 8, the first meeting of the Florida Bluebird Society will be held at the University of Florida.
The society, which is an affiliate of the North American Bluebird Society, is dedicated to conserving and protecting bluebirds in Florida by educating bluebird enthusiasts about the proper ways to attract and care for this species of bird.
The society hopes to collect and disseminate scholarly and practical information about bluebirds on its Web site, www.FloridaBluebirdSociety.com.
Bill Pennewill, who founded the Florida Bluebird Society as well as the Penney Birders in Penney Farms northeast of Gainesville in Clay County, said he took an interest in bluebirds after he began maintaining the bluebird boxes at his retirement community.
Originally from Pennsylvania, Pennewill said he didn’t have a knowledge of Florida bluebirds and found it difficult to obtain reliable and accurate information about the species.
He hopes people who have questions or information about bluebirds will become members of the Florida Bluebird Society or at least use its Web site to communicate and exchange ideas.
The society already has a member who lives in Connecticut, as well as about 12 members from Florida.
Anyone interested in joining the Florida Bluebird Society can download an application for membership from the Web site, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or attend the first meeting and fill out an application.
Alachua and Marion counties boast 13 of these bird paradises, including San Felasco Hammock Preserve State Park and Salt Springs in the Ocala National Forest.
Mike Manetz, a local birding expert and a member of the Alachua Audubon Society, said he began bird watching in the area 16 years ago as something to do when the rest of his family would sleep in.
“I’d take morning hikes through Paynes Prairie,” he said. “I remember the first time I saw an Eastern meadowlark -- it just blew my socks off. I thought, ‘How can such a beautiful bird be right here in Gainesville, and I never even knew it?’ ”
Soon after, Manetz began getting involved with the Alachua Audubon Society. He said people interested in birding should take bird-watching classes to help them begin to recognize birds.
Kathy Haines, the chairman of birding classes for the Audubon Society, said her bird-watching classes through Santa Fe College Community Education help amateur and expert bird-watchers become familiar with the area and local species.
Those interested in taking the next bird-watching class, which will meet each Saturday in September and includes field trips to birding hot spots, can sign up online beginning Wednesday at www.mysfcollege.com for $49.
Manetz and Scales said installing a bird feeder in your backyard and watching for familiar bird species is a good way to start bird watching.
Look for these common, year-round bird residents in your neighborhood or at your backyard feeder. Then, grab a pair of binoculars and venture out to Paynes Prairie or Newnan’s Lake to experience many of the birds North Central Florida has to offer.
Also known as a “red bird,” this songbird’s characteristic red plumage, orange bill and red crest make it easily identifiable for bird watchers, Scales said. Both males and females sing a series of loud, clear, variable whistles to attract mates and define and defend territory.
Known for mimicking the songs of other birds, car alarms and even cell phone rings, this state bird of Florida can be found in backyards, wooded areas and even the University of Florida campus in Gainesville. Mockingbirds are large, slender, gray-and-white songbirds, Scales said. They exhibit aggressive behaviors to defend their territory, including a conspicuous wing-pumping display. Look for these birds to dominate feeders for territory, not food.
Bird watchers might be better able to hear the mourning dove than see it, Scales said. These large birds are fast flyers whose wings make a whistling sound as they take off in flight. These doves are not songbirds like the cardinal or the mockingbird, but they are almost always found among several others of their kind or in a flock.
“I like the word ‘raucous’ for a blue jay,” Scales said, because blue jays are loud and aggressive. These songbirds are members of the crow family, so blue jays are considered intelligent. Their plumage is blue on the wings and tail, and identifying their blue crest can be extremely helpful for bird watchers to distinguish a blue jay from an Eastern bluebird.
Scales said these birds are the most familiar backyard-feeder birds by song. They are opportunistic nesters: They have been known to build nests in coiled garden hoses, bicycle helmets and potted plants. Carolina wrens have the loudest vocalizations in North America for their size. These songbirds have coppery brown plumage with a white bar across their eyes. Their bills are long and curved to help them probe for insects.
This call bird can be seen year-round clinging to trees, large limbs and even rain gutters. Scales said he considers these birds demonstrative and entertaining. During mating season, male woodpeckers have been known to drum on a surface that resonates its call, such as a metal pole, in order to artificially amplify the size of its territory and attract a mate. Woodpeckers nest in cavities they hollow out with their beaks in soft, old wood.
Great blue heron
Scales said there’s no big trick to identifying this long-legged, crooked-neck wading bird. The great blue heron has a 72-inch wingspan, and its plumage is gray with a hint of blue. This wetland species is opportunistic and somewhat migratory — great blue herons are widespread across North America. Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park is home to many of these large birds. Scales said bird watchers can confuse great blue herons with sandhill cranes, especially during the winter, when the cranes migrate into Alachua County.
“What an amazing bird,” Scales said about the American crow. These songbirds, closely related to the warbler, are large and boisterous with jet-black plumage. Crows are usually regarded as a nuisance at feeders because they are dominant and aggressive. They are not terribly common, Scales said, but once they appear, they are hard to get rid of and cause other bird species to leave. Crows are intelligent and almost always found in flocks.
This blackbird is a little larger than a cardinal, and adult males are notable for the bright red and yellow wing feathers they reveal when protecting their territory or attracting a mate. Red-winged blackbirds have a distinctive loud, shrill vocalization. Scales said they can be found in flocks of hundreds, even thousands, in wetland areas such as Paynes Prairie. These blackbirds are much more common in the winter than in the summer, and they are the most-studied bird in North America because they are abundant and widespread across the continent, Scales said.
These songbirds are large and jet-black with an iridescent sheen to their feathers. Their name comes from their spade-shaped tail. Scales said they can be recognized by their high, squeaky vocalizations. Males are more conspicuous than females, whose plumage is more brown. Boat-tailed grackles travel in flocks and can be found in marshy, wetland areas, especially around lakes. The common grackle is much more familiar at inland feeders, Scales said. They look and act like their boat-tailed cousins; the two mainly differ in their habitats.
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