Why our area is a birdwatcher's paradise
Published: Tuesday, January 3, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, December 31, 2011 at 4:45 p.m.
The leaves flutter in the slight morning breeze as the sun peeks through the creaking branches around Paynes Prairie. A flash of yellow and a flutter of wings brings Mike Manetz's attention to a tree in the distance. Binoculars up, he tightens the focus on a spot 100 feet away. What was once a blur in the sky has become a brown-streaked bird with a bright golden belly and a black "v" on its chest, a bird that Manetz says is one of the most beautiful he's seen here in Alachua County, even though it's fairly common: an Eastern meadowlark.
Manetz, co-author of "The Birdwatcher's Guide to Alachua County, Florida," says it was the beauty of a moment such as this that attracted him to birding. His co-author, Rex Rowan, was drawn to the sky by the user-friendly and active setup of the Audubon Society.
"I had been interested in animals since I was a little boy, but I was mostly fixated on snakes and things like that," Rowan said. "When I moved to Gainesville in 1988, I was still intending to study reptiles and amphibians, so I joined the Audubon and the herpetology society, but the herp society was only talking about things they bought in pet shops, while the Audubon was always going out on field trips into the woods. It was just a lot more fun."
John Hintermister said bird watching has been a part of his life for more than 60 years.
"My parents ran a hotel in Gainesville, and they had some ladies come down on vacation," Hintermister said. "They were birders, and they would take me out when I was 4 years old. I called them the ‘bird ladies.' "
Three men brought together by a pastime that has captured the hearts of so many in Alachua County: bird watching.
Here in Gainesville, the climate and inviting marshlands provide a haven for unusual-looking, majestic birds. Cranes, herons and egrets crowd the muddy patches of Paynes Prairie. Gulls fill the skies at Newnans Lake.
"Alachua County is a pretty special place," said ornithologist David Steadman, curator of birds at the Florida Museum of Natural History. "If you look at a map of Florida, Alachua has a lot of protected land. And this has attracted a lot of people who appreciate nature, which has resulted in a pretty good system of developed trails, so we have a lot of organized interest to go out."
You don't have to be an expert to enjoy the perks of bird watching. All four men agree all you need is a basic birding guide and a good pair of binoculars.
"A lot of people start by seeing a particular bird, and they'll go look it up," Hintermister said. "From there on out, they're paying attention."
Manetz said the easiest way to get started is to make a list of the birds you see in your backyard.
Most beginning birders will see mockingbirds, sparrows and ducks with no outside help. For those hoping to see something a bit more unusual, putting bird feeders and birdhouses in your yard will attract other, less common species.
Steadman keeps hummingbird feeders filled with sweet water to attract the small, iridescent birds. A tubed bird feeder for seed eaters placed by an overhang of trees will bring cardinals and blue jays. Meanwhile, a platform feeder filled with bits of apples and raisins will catch the interest of orioles and woodpeckers. Since the fruit feeders offer no protection from squirrels and other animals, make sure they are small.
Once you've got the birds to watch, Manetz said binoculars can really enhance the experience.
"If beginner birders have a decent pair of binoculars, they're delighted at the sight of a bird up close," he said. "Normally they see birds just flitting through the trees as part of the background, but when they see one — really see one — it's an amazing experience for them."
Rowan said many advanced birders have what's called a bird "bucket list" — birds they want to see before they die.
"The flamingos of Africa, penguins in the Antarctic, California condors," he said. "These are all spectacles in the birding world, requiring travel and patience to see."
But Rowan added that he doesn't keep such a list. He said he's happy with the expansive list of birds right here in Alachua County — more than 300 species, by some estimates.
"There's a misconception that in order to do real exploration, you have to go into space or into some submersible in the ocean," Steadman said.
You don't need deep space or exotic locations to discover a whole new world. It's right there in your backyard, just waiting to be watched.
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