If you’re looking for a different spring break activity, consider birding. Some still call it geeky, but birding has become a hot pursuit in the U.S. One in five Americans now spends time watching the graceful creatures, and the number who travel to seek, spot, and identify birds has risen 8 percent since 2001, according to a government survey. Lynn Langway reports on top birding spots around the country as well as 7 Tips for Fledgling Birders.
Birding doesn’t have to be difficult; sometimes, the birds find you. That’s how it seems, at least, at two of my favorite wildlife preserves in southwest Florida, where the birds tend to be big, plentiful and close, making them easy to see. Beginners will also like the accessible trails, multiple guided tours and hundreds of helpful volunteers at Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, north of Naples, and the J.N.”Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island. Another advantage of these two destinations: should a newbie ever tire of birding, she can always retreat to the glorious Gulf beaches nearby.
At Corkscrew, a 2.25 mile boardwalk twists through varied habitats– wet prairies, pine uplands and an ancient grove of Bald Cypress, studded with orchids and swamp lilies–that shelter more than 200 species of migratory and resident birds. Come early, and you might encounter new birds at every turn, especially if you sign up in advance for a guided hike. When my husband and I took a 7 a.m. walk one winter morning, we were startled by a booming cry that sounded like “Who-Cooks-for-You?” We looked up to see a Barred Owl, its big body vibrating with each hoot. A few turns later, I found myself eye-to-eye with a Great Egret, who was lounging on the boardwalk railing as if he’d been waiting for me. Our two engaging guides and 10 fellow birders—the walks are limited to 12—helped us identify several tiny warblers that can be tricky to spot. With their assistance, we ended up logging 26 different species during our three-hour stay—-including two new –to-us Painted Buntings, brilliantly bedecked in chartreuse, red, and blue plumage.
At Ding Darling, a Red-Shouldered Hawk was doing his best Eagle imitation atop the flagpole when we arrived soon after sunrise. Named after the conservationist who lobbied for its creation, this outstanding refuge is run by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and offers a full calendar of classes, tours, and lectures. Travel the 4-mile wildlife drive by car, tram, and bike or on foot, and you might view 220-plus species on these 6400 acres of mangrove forest and marshes. But be sure to arrive close to low tide when the peak crowd of wading birds gathers to drill for food ; at high tide, the birds disperse to their hidden roosts. When we gazed out from the observation tower, at least a dozen Roseate Spoonbills were vacuuming the mud with their comical spatulate beaks, their feathers glowing in shades of pink from shell to flamingo. Arrayed around them were scores of Great and Little Blue Herons, Ibis, Egrets, and Anhingas, while flocks of White Pelicans and hundreds of shorebirds wheeled and turned overhead.