Every fall, the skies over the Florida Keys fill with thousands of birds from hundreds of species heading south for the winter.
For 14 years, folks who love birds and the outdoors have gathered to see, identify and admire them through the Florida Keys Birding and Wildlife Festival, which opens Tuesday and runs through Sept. 30.
“We are witness to this spectacular migration,” says Kristie Killam, a ranger at the National Key Deer Refuge. “We’ll see birds you don’t normally see — hawks, Peregrine Falcons, all different species.” Some species summer in the Arctic, others in Canada or the northern USA. They follow the land as far as it goes, and that means they fly over the narrow strip that is the Florida Keys, often stopping to chow down before heading over water to the Caribbean or Central or South America.
The festival, however, is not designed for hard-core birders, says Killam, one of the organizers of this year’s event: “I don’t even consider myself a hard-core birder.”
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It’s for people, especially families, who want to get outdoors and experience the nature and wildlife of the Florida Keys.
“It’s almost like a behind-the-scenes tour,” Killam says. “You get to see parts of the Keys you maybe haven’t seen, with people who live here and love it.”
For example, the Kona Kai Resort on Key Largo, mile marker 97.8, has a small botanic garden packed with 250 documented tropical species. It’s normally open only to guests or by appointment for a $25 donation. But festival participants can join a tour by the garden’s ethnobotanist for just $15 at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday or Sept. 30.
Similarly, kayak outfitter Out There Kayak Expeditions will transport passengers and kayaks by pontoon boat to Crocodile Lake for viewing in America’s only crocodile refuge. These trips are $60 during the festival, but are normally $78.
One of the best stops for folks with children is the Environmental Fair at Curry Hammock State Park, mile marker 56.6. From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, there will be live animals, hands-on activities, a scavenger hunt, a guided beach hike, a self-guided kayak tour, a free birding walk (at 1:30 p.m.) and dozens of booths sponsored by local resource agencies, nonprofit organizations and local artists.
One of the most popular annual festival events is a bit pricier — the trip to the Dry Tortugas on Sunday, Sept. 30, aboard the Yankee Freedom. This trip, which leaves Key West at 7:30 a.m. and returns at 5 p.m., offers two guided groups. One group will be led by avid Florida Keys birder and ecotour guide Mark Hedden. The other will be led by wildlife photographers Dick Fortune and Sara Lopez, who will share the secrets of professional wildlife photography. The birding trip has an additional $25 fee. The ferry itself is $165 for adults, but there are discounts for Monroe County adults ($99), seniors and others.
During and after the festival, you can join in the activities of the Florida Keys Hawkwatch, who monitor the bird migration from Sept. 15 to Nov. 13 at Curry Hammock State Park, mile marker 56.1 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Bring your binoculars! Florida Keys Hawkwatch averages over 15,000 sightings of birds of prey in their southbound migration. See their website for more details: http://floridakeyshawkwatch.wordpress.com/.
There are many additional events, including tours on land, by kayak and on bike, plus talks by experts, including Bill Thompson III, the editor of Bird Watcher’s Digest and author of the The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of Eastern North America (Houghton Mifflin, 2008). He speaks several evenings and will lead some birding walks. You must reserve in advance for his evening talks.
The festival lets your sign up for and pay for individual events from a sort of a la carte menu. Many sell out, such as the Dry Tortugas trip. You can find a complete guide to the festival at its website, http://keysbirdingfest.org/.
Visiting the Keys in September has its advantages — it’s the slowest season of the year with the best hotel rates. Some areas do have mosquito issues, and Killam says you should be prepared with bug spray and maybe even mosquito netting clothing if you plan to join the Everglades birding outing or the one to Lignum Vitae Key State Park. Other areas of the Keys generally do not have mosquito issues in the fall, says Killam, who should know. She lives on No Name Key, a sparsely developed island in the middle of the National Key Deer Refuge.
Bonnie Gross writes about her Florida travels for FloridaRambler.com