Fairchild and Audubon bring fall migration of birds to the forefront with festival and tours

A macaw takes in his surroundings at the sixth annual Bird Festival, last weekend at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.
A macaw takes in his surroundings at the sixth annual Bird Festival, last weekend at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. For the Miami Herald

With the fall migration of birds underway, The Tropical Audubon Society and Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden have partnered to educate people about birds by hosting guided field trips and other events that appeal to local bird enthusiasts — from novices to experts.

During Early Bird Walks, held every Saturday and Sunday morning at Fairchild through Nov. 29, volunteer guides walk visitors through the grounds’ two main trails to spot different birds and to tally them. Data of quantity and variety of observed birds are entered into an “e-bird tracker,” a real-time online checklist that feeds into a global database, which helps scientists gather information on bird populations.

“Now we’re starting migration, so this is the peak time of birds visiting South Florida,” says Gaby Orihuela, visitor experiences manager at Fairchild.

The Tropical Audubon Society offers free birding, butterfly and plant trips to the public every weekend of the year, covering different natural areas in South Florida; morning, half or full-day field trips as well as overnight options are available and are led by volunteer Tropical Audubon Society leaders.

“It’s important to be with the experts where you can interact with them and really learn because some people are intimidated by birding,” says Laura Reynolds, executive director of Tropical Audubon. “It takes a very long time to be able to identify birds. I think the best way to do it is to go on field trips and really learn from these folks.”

The sixth annual bird festival spanned four days, with two days of off-site birding tours followed by a two-day on-site event at Fairchild over the weekend. Activities at Fairchild included bird walks for kids and adults, panel discussions with birding experts about trends in migration, a review of South Florida bird sightings, and updates on current conservation efforts.

Budding and experienced bird watchers were led through Deering Estate at Cutler, Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, and Curry Hammock State Park in the Keys to see migrating birds in their favored habitats, during the birding tours led by Tropical Audubon Society guides. Neotropical migrant songbirds, peregrine falcons and the native white-crowned pigeon and mangrove cuckoo were among some of the types of birds spotted.

The 77th annual Members’ Day Plant Sale was held in conjunction with the bird festival, with ferns, aroids, palms, cacti, succulents and other native and exotic plant varieties available for purchase.

Reynolds offered an alarming fact about Miami-Dade County’s scarcity of tree canopy coverage, which birds depend on during their migration to rest and replenish themselves before continuing their journey further south.

“Miami-Dade has the worst tree canopy in the entire nation,” she says. “The national average is about 35 percent and Miami-Dade is at about 14 percent.” She credits the “Million Trees Miami” campaign in its effort to increase tree canopy coverage in the county and offered advice to home and land owners.

“It’s really important that we all do our part to green-up Miami, because birds need a place to rest and refuel.”

She also offered a tip to beginners of bird watching. “The key is a really good pair of binoculars;” she said, in order to identify characteristics that would be near impossible to see from far away.

Joe Barros, president of the Tropical Audubon Society, says birds are coming to South Florida from as far as the Arctic Circle, Canada, and all of North America. He says they’ll fly to the Caribbean, Cuba, Antilles, Central and South America. Their diets, he says, consist mostly of insects and fruit “for energy-rich foods for their flights.”

“Birds connect us to nature,” he says. “They’re an enjoyment of daily life. All throughout cultures, birds are the ones that sing in the morning to wake us up; they’re the first sign of spring, and are the coming of weather patterns.”

Some of the foliage at the plant sale included varieties that attract birds and butterflies.

“Birds and plants go hand in hand, especially in South Florida. They’re coming to our native forest or hammocks for food sources,” he added.

He believes birds have an internal clock that leads them to migrate before the cold comes to their native areas. “Not only do they know that it’s time to go, they know how to go and they know where they’re going,” he says.

He and other Audubon members worry what South Florida’s population boom and development means for migrating and native birds.

“No doubt the loss of habitat is the main cause of the loss of species,” he says of birds and other animals. “Birds follow what’s called a “coastal highway” so it’s very important that we preserve whatever land we can because these are important stopping grounds for them.”

He and Reynolds agree that plants can provide a habitat or stopping grounds for birds and that someone who plants bird-attracting vegetation in their backyards will help ensure the birds have a place to rest and refuel during their migration, which often spans thousands of miles.

If You Go

▪ What: Early Bird Walks at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.

▪ When: Every Saturday and Sunday, starting 7:30 a.m. at the Shehan Vistitor’s Center, through Nov. 29.

▪ Cost: Free for members; nonmembers pay admission: adults, $25; seniors 65 and over, $18; children 6-17, $12; 5 and under, free.

▪ Location: 10901 Old Cutler Rd., Coral Gables.

▪ Contact: Visit www.fairchildgarden.org or email contactus@fairchildgarden.org, or call (305) 667-1651.