Florida Crane Festival celebrates wintering cranes in North Florida

Hundreds of sandhill cranes feed on the pastures at the Beef Teaching Unit at the University of Florida in December 2010.

Erica Brough/Staff Photographer/File
Published: Sunday, January 8, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 5, 2012 at 5:35 p.m.

Tony and Krista Sonsini were hoping to catch a glimpse of some wildlife at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park as they drove through town this week.


If you go

Florida Crane Festival
What: Daylong festival celebrating the wintering cranes in North Florida. The event includes guided birdwatching treks, bus tours and speakers.
When: Jan. 14
Where: Prairie Creek Lodge, 7204 SE County Road 234, Gainesville
Price: $60
Register at floridacranefestival.com and for more information, contact Lauraine Lynch at 378-8823.

The Cocoa Beach residents, who said they like to hike and enjoy nature, lamented not seeing any bison or cranes as they stood on the Paynes Prairie observation deck Tuesday.

"We go on hiking events when there's more bird migration," said Tony Sonsini. "Sandhill cranes spend time [in Cocoa Beach]."

Too bad the Sonsinis can't stick around a few more days.

The Florida Trail Association, in partnership with other conservation groups and public agencies, is hosting the first Florida Crane Festival Saturday to celebrate the arrival of sandhill and the elusive whooping cranes to North Florida and areas south for the winter.

The event includes guided birdwatching treks, bus tours and speakers. While the area has a small population of year-round resident sandhill cranes, the vast majority of them are northern birds that winter in Florida. Some can usually be seen feeding in University of Florida cattle fields on Williston Road. Pastures along County Road 225 around Evinston also are a favorite hangout.

The event, which organizers hope to make an annual occurrence, costs $60 per person, which includes shuttle service, guided tours and food throughout the day. The festival speaking events will be held at the Prairie Creek Lodge, 7204 SE County Road 234.

Several of the tours already are sold out, but space is still available on the Bike to Birds bike tour and two time slots for Cows to Cranes tours.

"Some hikes are closed out because we want to have a manageable group of people so as not to disturb the cranes," said Dennis Miranda, the executive director of the Florida Trail Association. Tours are open to groups of no more than 25 people per event.

The event, which hopes to raise awareness of protected open space and natural resources in Florida, is possible thanks to collaboration with the Alachua Audubon Society, Payne's Prairie Preserve State Park, Alachua Conservation Trust and Wildbirds Unlimited.

"During the prolonged economic slump, we've heard the political debate ramp up questioning the wisdom of preserving open space or protecting the natural heritage of the state of Florida," said Miranda. "The Florida Trail Association would like to be a catalyst in reiterating that the public investment in our open spaces and protecting natural resources is .?.?. protecting eco-tourism."

The festival features guided tours on shuttle buses from several public places, such as the Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park and Barr Hammock, silent auctions and educational presentations.

Attendees will be immersed in natural environments and are urged to wear comfortable walking shoes as they enjoy guided birdwatching treks with seasoned leaders.

Jim Weimer, the park biologist since 1986 at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, will be the festival's keynote speaker.

Miranda said the area's mosaic of marshes, lakes, prairies, sinkholes and grasslands are "a haven for wintering and breeding sandhill cranes and the federally endangered whooping crane."

The Florida Trail Association is a volunteer, nonprofit association dedicated to developing, maintaining, promoting and protecting a continuous public hiking trail the length of Florida; providing opportunities to hike and camp; and educating others to appreciate and conserve the natural beauty of Florida.

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