Where the birds are
By BARBARA BEHRENDT, Times Staff Writer
The occasional catbird called from the bushes, answered by another not far away. Once and then later, the black wings of a vulture were glimpsed among the tall tree branches. Then there was the pile of pigeon feathers and two spent 20-gauge shotgun shells resting nearby.
Just then, a tiny bird streaked overhead, and Dick Blewett identified it in an instant.
"A goldfinch," he said. "You can tell by the way it folds its wings."
Blewett wasn't in the woods birding on this day, as much as he might have liked to be. He was in Flying Eagle last week to make the Inverness area preserve more birder-friendly so others could experience his hobby. The Sugarmill Woods resident has enjoyed birdwatching for most of his 75 years.
Blewett was putting the finishing touches on several Citrus County birding trails. He visited land managers to talk about signs and examined the trails with wildlife photographer William Garvin to gather pictures of what the trails offer.
The hope is that, with a little help from local, state and federal agencies, as well as Blewett and other local volunteers, the trails soon will be ready for birding enthusiasts.
In early November, Blewett was among the many birdwatchers who attended the grand opening ceremonies for the West Coast section of the Great Florida Birding Trail at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville. Eighteen of the 19 identified birding trails in Citrus are part of that larger system.
The significance of being a part of the Great Florida Birding Trail boils down to exposure.
Good birding spots available to the public are often out-of-the-way, hard-to-find areas. But with the publishing of a master list of good birdwatching sites, bird lovers now have a map and a description of what activities are available at a site, whether they'll need a boat or good hiking boots for access, and even some details of what birds they might hope to spot in a particular location.
Those guides are available through the various agencies land managers, including Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. Those interested can also contact the Great Florida Birding Trail office at (850) 488-8755 for a copy or look online at floridabirdingtrail.com.
Although the guide gives detailed information on 117 birding sites along Florida's West Coast, Citrus birdwatchers will have access to even more detail on Citrus County's trails, thanks to Blewett. He is using his extensive knowledge of birding to write a detailed Citrus birding guide.
That Citrus guide will also include other quick one-stop spots where birds might be seen around the county, as well as general information on birding, including a bird list so people can check off the individual species they see. Already volunteers have documented more than 250 species in Citrus County, but Blewett said there probably are 300 species or more that live in or visit the county.
The work done by and coordinated by Blewett during the trail nomination and approval process was a big help to Julie Brashears, coordinator for the Great Florida Birding Trail. Blewett discussed the trails with the land managers, who largely picked them. He worked with volunteers to conduct inventories of bird species found on the trails and worked out details to ensure good public access.
"He's definitely an exceptional man who has put out an exceptional effort," she said. "Citrus County is really lucky to have him."
Blewett seeks little credit for his work. When asked why he has spent two years working on the project, forgoing his own birdwatching enjoyment, his only response is that his wife wonders the same thing.
What he hopes to accomplish by his effort is clearer. "I just want to get more people interested in birding," he said. "We're giving them a venue that makes it easier for them."
He did not inherit his love of birds. It was sparked when he worked to earn his birdwatching merit badge on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout. Ever since, he has carried a lifetime bird list and his binoculars.
During his visit to Flying Eagle last week, the woods were silent. As his photographer took shots from the scenic bridge overlooking moss-draped cypress trees, Blewett said that the area is a haven for songbirds, but not on that cool, somewhat overcast morning.
"It's quiet today," he said. "If it suddenly got real warm and the sun came out, you'd hear them, but they're staying in bed."
Farther down the trail, Blewett's tour guide for the day, Chris Linhart, noticed the sound of airboats in the distance.
Linhart coordinates public use for Flying Eagle and other properties owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District or in partnership with Swiftmud. Linhart said the airboats were either on the nearby Withlacoochee River or possibly in the preserve, where they shouldn't be.
He also showed off an area where water levels were rising and, because airboats are not allowed, habitat for birds of all kinds was natural and undisturbed.
Flying Eagle boasts the longest of the walking wilderness trails on the Citrus birding sites list, at 3.5 miles each way. Habitats along the way include lakes and marshes, upland woods and meadows. Trails on the list at Lake Rousseau and near the Cross Florida Barge Canal will be delayed in opening as additional details are worked out.
Other trails should be getting signs and route markers soon, Blewett said.
Some trails are accessible only by boat or canoe and others are driving trails, providing a good fit with the birder who would rather not hike long distances but still wants to see a variety of bird life.
Birdwatching, Blewett said, is "big business now."
Studies show that birdwatching generates nearly $500-million annually in Florida as visitors come to see birds and spend money in hotels and restaurants and in purchasing birdwatching-related items. The activity generates $3.3-million just in sales tax.
In addition to the economic shot-in-the-arm for smaller communities, the birdwatching business also promotes itself as a clean and light industry.
"We encourage use of birding tourism as an advocate for conservation," Brashears said.
The hope is that the opening of the West Coast section of the Florida trail will draw many more such conservation advocates into the area. Only a month since the guides were distributed and the trails opened, Brashears said, she already has received a response from a family from Wyoming that had picked up a guide on a visit.
They wrote her to tell her of their great experience, including visits to 10 of the trails they would never have known about or visited otherwise. "We're already getting the response," Brashears said. In the first year of the East Coast section of the trail, her office distributed 100,000 guides.
"The people are coming to Florida," she said. "This will really help to spread the word."
Visit the Citrus trails Web site at www.citrusbirdingtrail.com or the state's site at www.floridabirdingtrail.com.
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