A tranquil pastime quietly takes wing
By JENNIFER GOLDBLATT, Times Staff Writer
It is easy to see the attraction.
It is an excuse to be outside during the most tranquil times of day: in the two hours surrounding the sunrise, before the whoosh of cars on U.S. 19 has swelled into a roar, and in the two hours before sunset, when the only stirrings are the mullet recklessly flinging themselves from the water, and the blue sky is burning into pink, purple and finally pitch black.
The best birdwatching happens when the world has reclined into just enough stillness to glimpse what's stirring in the sawgrass and rustling in the canopies. And one of the best companions to have while birding in Pasco County is probably Ken Tracey, who can show you not just the local hot spots, but also the kind of grace that careful birding requires.
Even with binoculars dangling from his neck, a camera swinging from his shoulder and a bookmarked field guide peeking from his vest pocket, there is a stillness about him -- a patience in his unstraying eye contact and a calm in his voice that interrupts only to point out the staccato call of a pileated woodpecker or the tail pumping of a palm warbler closing in for a landing.
"It's amazing what you see when you start looking for it," he says, cracking a grin.
Tracey, 58, is president of the West Pasco Audubon Society and one of the main authors of the recently published Bird Watcher's Guide to Pasco County.
The guide details some of the 324 species of birds found at 44 sites throughout the county and is available from the West Pasco Audubon Society or the Pasco Tourism Office. Tracey hopes to get the guide listed in the American Birding Association Sales Catalog, which goes out to 27,000 people all over the United States.
The county paid for the printing of the guide. It seems that luring a flock of birders could be a lucrative tourism investment.
Birders generate about $477-million in retail sales in Florida every year. Florida ranks second in the nation in bird-borne sales, which include equipment, admissions, souvenirs, food for the birders, food and feeders for the birds, hotel stays, gasoline and field guides.
According to the American Birding Association, the average birder is 53 years old, has an average household income of $60,000, more than likely has a bachelor's degree and spends an average of $3,054 a year on books, equipment, meals, lodging and transportation.
And the birder population seems to be multiplying.
In 1994, more than 54-million Americans defined themselves as birdwatching enthusiasts. That's up from 33-million in 1982. That outpaced the growth of golf, fishing and hunting.
"They're really an overlooked tourist group," said Julie Brashears, Great Florida Birding Trail coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
"Traditionally, you need to pave, drain, air condition and irrigate for tourists, but for birders, you want to maintain the habitat in healthy conditions. It's a way to have economic development without having to change the face of the community."
Tracey hopes to bring even more birdwatching fame to Pasco and has nominated eight local sites for inclusion in the Great Birding Trail for West Florida that is now in the works. In the next few months, the commission will visit the areas and choose sites on the basis of the quality of the birdwatching, educational significance and ease of access.
Birdwatching is a relatively safe hobby -- that is, unless you attempt it during hunting season, while driving or while trespassing in someone else's back yard. Some of the best places to bird, like some of the best places for surfers to catch choice waves, are on private property.
So bird at your own risk.
What I learned last month, while touring some of Pasco's prime birding spots with Tracey, is that to pursue birding you must become a student of history, botany, biology and whatever else you stumble upon along the way.
For instance, you must learn how closely the pigmy rattlesnake resembles the small pine branches on the ground in the Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park so that you don't accidentally step on a snake.
"Its camouflage is so perfect that people have picked them up by accident while moving sticks," Tracey said.
You must know to steer clear of the cow killer ant, whose sting is so painful that it is said to have sent cows running until they died.
Much of the data collecting that amateur birders do becomes a free resource for professional scientists. Take the study of chimney swifts at the College of William and Mary.
When a local Audubon Society member spotted what looked like bats going into the chimney at the Dressed to Kill store on Main Street in New Port Richey, Tracey and others went to check it out. It turned out that the dark brown birds were chimney swifts, and researchers at William and Mary were doing a nationwide survey of the species. The local Audubon members started recording data for them.
The birds have historically nested in large, 300-year-old trees with rotted-out centers. As many of those trees were sawed down, the birds started nesting in old brick chimneys. Researchers think they flock to old cities near rivers that offer a buffet of insects to feed upon.
When a flock flies into a chimney for landing, the birds circle like a tornado and fall out of formation, one by one, as if performing some sort of modern dance. But when they emerge from the chimney, in order to keep a low profile from predators, the birds subtly fall out one at a time, like a hungover college kid stumbling out of bed.
The local Audubon chapter also identified eight local bald eagle nests, adding to the 10 already identified by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The identification of the nests -- and a law that says there can be no building within 1,500 feet of them -- factored into the construction of a road being built in the Key Vista neighborhood. Road planners had to configure the road around the nests.
Many of the birds must be discovered by listening because they are too small to see from far away or are hiding from predators and birders. Even in the middle of the wooded trails in Starkey Park, Tracey could tell by the bird's call that we were in the company of a red-crested pileated woodpecker. The species was used as the model for the Woody Woodpecker cartoons. The park is filled with many kinds of wildlife, and common sightings include the bachman's sparrow, the barred owl and the brown-headed nuthatch.
Green Key Beach, Port Richey Waterfront Park and the new Werner-Boyce state park are all prime areas for birding and just a quick drive west of U.S. 19. The peninsula is a good pit stop for the birds; the thick mangroves provide protection from predators, and the mud flats are teeming with oysters, fiddle crabs and other crustaceans to feed upon.
We saw laughing gulls, as well as ringbill and herring gulls, at Green Key, along with a gang of black skimmers that were peacefully resting until an airboat roared out of the sawgrass and sent them into the clouds.
In October, Tracey spotted and verified there the sabine's gull, which had not been seen on the gulf coast of Florida before. Such birds usually are seen on Florida's east coast as they migrate from their nesting grounds in the Arctic Circle to their wintering areas off the coast of Argentina.
Verifying a new species is the touchdown, the home run and the hole in one of birding. Tracey has focused most of his time trying to do that in Pasco. He also spotted the lesser black-backed gull at the Gulf Harbors private beach in November. The bird typically nests in England and is usually found along Florida's east coast.
Next, he hopes to find a black rail -- a chunky, black ground-dwelling marsh bird that he has heard reports about. He hopes to have access to a spot to find them when more of the trails are finished in the new Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park.
When spring comes, Tracey will scout for some unidentified small owls he has heard about along the Withlacoochee State Trail that might turn out to be an undocumented species.
"It's certainly exciting and rewarding to see something new and to realize you're learning yourself," he said. "It enhances the experience to be able to share it with people who appreciate it -- and give them the opportunity to have the same experience."
Where to call
The guide costs $4.95. To get a copy, contact the Pasco County Tourism Office toll-free at (800) 842-1873or log on to www.visitpasco.net. To contact the West Pasco Audubon Society, call Ken Tracey at 727-372-9640 or visit www.audubon.org/ chapter/fl/westpasco.
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