The group of 11 eagerly trained their binoculars and telephoto lenses high on the crossbars of Pacific Reef Light several miles offshore of south Miami-Dade County last Monday, hoping to spot their target.
“We got the boobies!” Elsa Alvear, chief of resource management at Biscayne National Park, exclaimed happily.
It wasn’t a joke, and no one laughed. The park boat was loaded with birders who had come to see and photograph the six brown boobies perched on the structure — sea birds with a chocolate brown back and white belly that never come ashore. The birders oohed and aahed as if in the presence of celebrities. For several, it was their first sight of the species.
The offshore boat tour, held at the start of the fall migration season, launched the Biscayne Birding Trail — a free program created by the park and Tropical Audubon Society to encourage South Florida residents and tourists to get outdoors and watch wildlife. Visitors may pick up a bird checklist at the Dante Fascell Visitor Center and mark down which species they see within the park boundaries on both land and water. A ranger will verify the bird count, and the birder will receive an achievement certificate on the spot. Full-color certificates will be awarded for lifetime achievement levels starting at 30 native park bird species and culminating with expert for identifying 120 species. There’s even a special category for junior birders who spot 10 or more different birds in the park.
The trail is the first of its kind for a national park, according to Alvear.
“A lot of birders go to national parks, but we don’t reward them in any way,” she said. “I want to bring people back again and again. We’re hoping this idea catches hold in other national parks, and [they] use it as a way to get kids interested in conservation.”
Birding is a sport, like stand-up paddleboarding or kayaking, aficionados say. Unlike bird watching, which is simply observing random birds, birding involves seeking a target species. Several websites publish birders’ tallies. The sport was the subject of the 2011 comedy, The Big Year, starring Owen Wilson, Jack Black and Steve Martin, which centered on a cutthroat competition to see who could spot the most bird species in a year. There are even birder jokes — Question: What do birders call trees? Answer: perches.
Two real-life “Big Year” competitors from Miami — 51-year-old Roberto Torres and 27-year-old Rangel Diaz — attended Monday’s Birding Trail kickoff. Diaz, a Miami-Dade parks naturalist, was hoping to spot a great shearwater (an offshore bird like the brown booby) in his quest to beat Torres’ 2009 record of 298 species, which all were recorded in Miami-Dade County. Diaz’s count currently stands at 279. He confesses to rising at 3 a.m. some days to try to locate a specific bird that might show up at dawn in the Everglades.
“We both have a chance at 300 if we get enough birds showing up in South Florida,” Diaz said. “It keeps you competitive. It gives you a reason to wake up in the morning.”
Neither Diaz, nor Torres, who works for the Nature Conservancy, was able to add to his lifetime list Monday, despite counting 31 species on land and water in Biscayne National Park. But they were pleased at spotting a red-necked phalarope and a common tern — which is not common in South Florida — in addition to the boobies. And the two men, along with the rest of the group, received full-color, signed certificates for identifying at least 30 species in the park.
Laura Reynolds, executive director of the Tropical Audubon Society, said she hopes their enthusiasm for birding in the park will be contagious.
“People don’t realize this is a national park and an aquatic preserve,” Reynolds said.
“Let’s get people to want to take care of it — what better way than a treasure hunt?”