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Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival

Annual autumn event in Florida rockets to success

BY DAVID B. FREELAND

Winging It header
Vol. 16, No. 7 — July 2004
In a part of Florida in which Disney World land the Kennedy Space Center are the mega tourist targets, birding has nevertheless carved its own dynamic niche, thanks in large measure to the growing success of the annual Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival centered in Brevard County. Located on the Atlantic coast due east of Orlando, the festival, preparing for its eighth year in 2004, is based at Brevard County Community College in Titusville, on the threshold of famous Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Birding at Jetty Park
Participants in the Space Coast Festival gull/tern identification workshop get real-time lessons at Jetty Park, Port Canaveral.
Photo: Ray Scory
Florida hosts at least thirteen wildlife festivals, from the Panhandle to the Keys, but the Space Coast Festival is the largest and most successful. Indeed, the event has emerged as one of the premier birding festivals in the nation by any measure. In 2003, the festival's five-day program featured choices among 47 field trips, 14 workshops, 35 seminars, 28 photography sessions, 31 kayaking adventures and—at no charge—keynote speakers Kenn Kaufman, Jim Davis, kayaking expert David Gluckman, and historian Dr. Walter Kingsley Taylor.

Field trips ranged in price from free (a special birding trip for children and certain morning hikes), to the $15-to-$30 range for shorter bus/van excursions, to $80 for longer trips like a scheduled pelagic outing out of Port Canaveral. In short, the Space Coast festival offers something for everyone (even proximity to Disney World and the Kennedy Space Center, for families with non-birding members). In addition to the field trips, speakers, seminars, and workshops, visitors explored an exhibit hail brimming with birding equipment and products for wildlife adventure enjoyment. A number of specialty features, such as bird-banding demonstrations, events especially for children, a wildlife art competition, photo displays, and a visit to Kennedy Space Center's "wild side", added spice to the agenda. Given all the options, it's no wonder that more than more than 2,000 participants found birding the Cape Canaveral region an attractive alternative to the lines at Disney and KSC.

Map of Festival area They were treated to 183 species of birds, including some elusive specialties of Florida and the Southeast, such as Limpkin, Reddish Egret, Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Stork, Snail Kite, Short-tailed Hawk, White-winged Dove, Common Ground-Dove, Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Florida Scrub-Jay, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Painted Bunting, and Bachman's Sparrow. Also tallied on festival trips were visiting rarities like Eared Grebe, American Golden-Plover, Purple Sandpiper, Lesser Black-backed Gull, and Rufous Hum- mingbird. In broader terms, the Space Coast Festival's five-day list has ranged from 173 species to a high of 197 during the seven years of its existence. The combined festival list of 238 species includes such goodies as Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, Greater White-fronted Goose, Common Eider, Franklin's Gull, Western Kingbird, Cave Swallow, Clay-colored Sparrow, and Yellow-headed Blackbird.

These results are no surprise: Brevard County and its environs have long been regarded as a superlative place to look for birds. Veteran birders can recall the time, three or four decades ago, when Brevard County's Cocoa Christmas Bird Count vied with San Diego, California, and Freeport. Texas, for the nation's longest CBC lists. Famed Allan Cruickshank was compiler, and count totals well over 200 were routine. Though Cocoa counts in the 150 range are now the norm due to habitat change in that part of Brevard County, birding overall continues to be excellent. Brevard County was once the home of the extinct Dusky Seaside Sparrow, whose demise in the 1980s is memorialized by a plaque at the spot of its final sighting at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Today, it is possible to see a rapidly expanding introduced population of Whooping Cranes in nearby Osceola County, visited by two festival field trips last fall. Just don't put them on your official list!

And there is always the possibility of a surprise to com- plement the regional specialities and "regular rarities" in the festival area. In 2002, the day after the Space Coast Festival ended, Murray Gardler of Brooksville, Florida, one of the festival's most skilled birding leaders, revisited the Viera Wetlands to see Mexican-race Cave Swallows reported from there twenty-four hours earlier. Much to his amazement, more than Cave Swallows were present: persistent field work and museum-skin study confirmed the presence of the ABA Area's first-ever Mangrove Swallow. You can see the newspaper article and photo of the Mangrove Swallow at the sign-in desk at Viera.

In addition to Merritt Island, two other important parcels in the National Wildlife Refuge system lie within the festival area. One is Pelican Island, America's first federally protected refuge. The other is Archie Can, a primary breeding ground for endangered sea turtles. Boat trips to Pelican Island are a popular feature of the Space Coast Festival. Moreover, Brevard County and other Space Coast areas are home to much more than birds and sea turtles. It is a vital manatee wintering ground, and it is quite easy to observe the splendid sea cows at several locations in the six-county area covered by the festival's events. The Indian River Lagoon is also a major fishing area (and not just for humans: Bald Eagle and Osprey nests festoon trees, power poles, and specially erected platforms throughout the region).

Field Trip Highlights Many 2003 Space Coast Festival field trips recorded such routine Florida specialties as Brown Pelican, Anhinga, White Ibis, Wood Stork, Mottled Duck, and Crested Caracara. Here's a sample of what else some of the festival's 47 outings turned up.

Hal Scott Preserve, southeast of Orlando in Orange County (68 species): three owl species, Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Sedge Wren, Bachman's Sparrow
Little Big Econ State Forest, in eastern Seminole County (73): Red-headed Woodpecker, Sedge Wren, Orange-crowned Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler
Viera Wetlands, Brevard County (82): American Golden-Plover, Black-necked Stilt, Long-billed Dowitcher, Stilt Sandpiper, Florida Scrub-Jay.
Smyrna Dunes, Volusia County (65): Northern Gannet, Roseate Spoonbill, Piping Plover, Marbled Godwit, Red Knot
Tosohatchee State Reserve & Orlando Wetlands Park, Orange County (83): Roseate Spoonbill, Merlin, Sora, Purple Gallinule, Limpkin, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Orange-crowned Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Bachman Sparrow
South Brevard County (91): Northern Gannet, Limpkin, White-rumped Sandpiper, Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Florida Scrub-Jay, Brown- headed Nuthatch, Bachman's Sparrow
Shorebird Workshop with Brian Harrington (80): Roseate Spoonbill, American Golden-Plover, Marbled Godwit, Red Knot, Stilt Sandpiper
Beginning Birding (57): Roseate Spoonbill, American Avocet, Marbled Godwit
Kids Beginning Birding (65): Eared Grebe, Least Bittern, Roseate Spoonbill, Marbled Godwit, Florida Scrub-Jay

The magnetic appeal that Florida as a whole holds for birders is, of course, legendary. The official state checklist boasts nearly 500 species (including exotics, some of which are ABA-countable, many of which are not). On the list are such jewels as Red-billed Tropicbird, White-cheeked Pintail, Black-tailed Godwit, Surfbird, Black Noddy, Ruddy Quail- Dove, Antillean Nighthawk, Antillean Palm-Swift, Bahama Woodstar, Cuban Pewee, LaSagra's Flycatcher, Variegated Flycatcher, Loggerhead Kingbird, Bahama Swallow, Yellow-green Vireo, Bananaquit, Western Spindalis, Yellow-facedGrassquit, Black-faced Grassquit and Spot-breasted Oriole. Legendary lister Phoebe Snetsinger made Florida one of just five states (including her home turf, Missouri and Illinois) that she visited ten or more times in her successful quest for 8,000 world species, chronicled in the 2003 ABA-published book, Birding on Borrowed Time.

The Space Coast Festival's rapid growth coincides with the nation's renewed interest in regional travel in the months following the catastrophic events of September 11, 2001. In its inaugural year of 1997, 211 people registered for the fes- tival. Four years later, 570 signed up for one event or more. After dipping below 400 in 2001 and 2002, the November 2003 rendition of the festival saw a dramatic rise to 702 full registrants and 2,029 day visitors from twenty-six states and three foreign countries. A significant majority-seventy per-cent‹of the attendees were from outside Brevard County.

Of course the festival's growth and current success hasn't happened by accident. The event was the brainchild of Chair Laurilee Thompson, a birder and the founder of Titusville's popular Dixie Crossroads Seafood Restaurant. Backroom support is provided by the Brevard Nature Alliance, a non-profit, tax-exempt organization whose mission is to promote and protect the environment for nature- based activities. Dozens of volunteers, operating under the leadership of a veteran steering committee, assure the festival's fifty-six sponsors and partners that their contributions are properly managed. These sponsors/partners are as diverse as the National Park Service (Canaveral National Seashore), Melbourne International Airport, NASA, Brevard Zoo, McDonald's, and Amtrak.

The 2004 festival, scheduled for 17-21 November, has Pete Dunne of literary and Cape May birding fame, British birding expert Tim Appleton, shorebird authority Brian Harrington, and top photographers Arthur Morris and Kevin Karlson already signed on as speakers or presenters. Looking farther ahead, the 2005 festival is set for 16-20 November. For further details on the 2004 Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival, contact Neta Harris at the Brevard Nature Alliance, (321) 268-5224 or neta@brevardnaturealliance.org. You can also visit the festival's website, www.nbbd.com/fly, for current information; while you're planning your trip to the Space Coast, you might visit <spacecoastbirding.com> for information on the birds and the principle birding sites of the six-county region. If Florida isn't in your plans, the ABA's searchable online directory of North American festivals lists events across the continent at www.americanbirding.org/festivals/.

David B. Freeland, an active member of the ABA since its inception, has joined the steering committee of the Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival to add a birder 's perspective. He has been birding for 53 years, initially in Massachusetts and later mostly in New York, Ontario, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, as well as other North American and international venues. In 2003, he moved to Merritt Island,Florida.




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