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Birds OF A

Feather
– AND BIRDWATCHERS –
Flock Together
THANKS TO ITS WEALTH OF NATIVE
AND VISITING BIRDS, VERO BEACH
ATTRACTS MORE AND MORE
EAGER BIRDERS EVERY YEAR.
WRITTEN BY ROBERT KIENER

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GRAHAM MCGEORGE
VERO BEACH caecepercere tus, VERO BEACH
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GRAHAM MCGEORGE
A
s he crouches down and adjusts the eyepiece on his Price flips open his iPad to play me the distinct call of the egret.
powerful spotting scope, Vero Beach-based bird- He pauses, smiles and says, “Only if you are interested. We bird-
watcher William Price turns to me and tells me in ers tend to go on a bit, I confess.” I am interested. I happily listen
a voice just above a whisper, “The reddish egret. Take a look.” as Price points out the other waterfowl in the pond. He soon seg-
It’s a sunny, cloudless February morning and we are at Joe’s ues into how he adopted the hobby of birding after a successful
Overlook, an observation platform at Pelican Island National career as a radiologist. “After a lifetime at examining X-rays that
Wildlife Refuge. I have just met Price and he’s offered to show were often a matter of life and death, I’ve found a hobby that is
me what brought him here today. a lot less stressful,” he says.
I bend down to look into Price’s scope and am rewarded with He “birds” almost every day. “Why don’t you give it a try?”
an up close and personal glimpse at the strikingly beautiful two- asks Price. He then explains, “Birding gets me out and about
and-a-half-foot tall reddish egret. Its body and wings are blue- and has introduced me to new places and people. And Vero has
gray, its neck and head are pale red and its pointed bill is salm- some of the best birding opportunities in the country.”
on-pink with a black tip. It stands as still as a statue on its long, Vero Beach and Indian River County, like much of Florida, is
slender blue legs in the small salt-water marsh, its eyes focused home to a staggering assortment of permanent and migratory
on the shallow waters. birds as well as an ever-growing population of permanent and
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Price asks as he points out the graceful migratory birdwatchers. “If this part of the world isn’t ground
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S-shaped neck and the elegantly long reddish-brown plumage central for bird watching, it’s close,” says Nancy Irvin, a lifelong

GRAHAM MCGEORGE
VERO BEACH
caecepercere tus, VERO BEACH
MAGAZINE atop its head. He explains that it is a fairly rare bird and, like Vero Beach resident and longtime board member of the Pelican nononsu pesi MAGAZINE

DECEMBER the snowy egret, nearly hunted to extinction in the 1800s. Its Island Audubon Society. “There are approximately 10,000 spe- s. Em maximus. Avervir DECEMBER
2016
feathery plumes were in much demand to adorn women’s hats. cies of birds in the world; 515 are in Florida and some 200 are in ibunc enatur in traeus. 2016
GREG HILLS

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4 After more binocular-toting, bird-watching visitors join us, Indian River County. So we have a wonderful assortment of birds 5
in trae
right here in our own backyard.” “For many birders it was a dream come true,” says Price, who Irvin and the flocks of birders who rushed to Centennial
And we have birdwatchers, flocks of them. According to the visited the pond and photographed the colorful, usually elusive, Pond illustrate the intensity some birders feel to check off yet
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an estimated 47 million birders duck. Adds Irvin, who also spotted it, “We were all excited. It was another unseen bird from their watch lists. The nonfiction book,
nationwide annually spend $41 billion on bird-watching relat- a very, very big deal!” “The Big Year,” and the Hollywood movie that was based on it,
ed trips and equipment. The number of resident and visiting As word spread, and after state bird experts confirmed that chronicles three avid – some say “crazed” – birders competing
wildlife viewers in Florida has jumped 22 percent since 2006, re- it was indeed a vagrant, a bird that had strayed from its normal with one another to see as many bird species as they can across
ports the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. R. range, and was not a captive that had escaped from is owner, the nation during one “Big Year.” The winner racked up 748 spe-
Todd Engstrom, president of the Florida Ornithological Society, eager birders from all around the country, called “chasers” by cies sightings during his 12-month odyssey.
notes the number of birdwatchers in Florida has “boomed sig- other birdwatchers, flew into Vero Beach to see the pintail and “A lot of my friends at school saw the movie and told me
nificantly over the last several decades.” add it to their life list. For a few months in the winters of 2013 they finally get why I am so into birding,” says Will Johnson. “I
and 2014 when it returned, Centennial Pond was, at least to bird- think it helped prove that birding is not just for nerds. At least

B
ird watching has been undergoing a startling trans- ers, the place to be. I hope it did.” But competitive and high-tech birding is not for
formation. It’s become more high tech, younger and, everyone. “I’m an old fashioned guy,” says South African-born

T
dare one say it, hipper. As an Audubon writer noted he rarer the bird, the bigger the thrill. Irvin remem- Peter Sutherland, who recently retired after serving on the board
recently, “People assume that birding occupies the intersection of bers she was preparing her Thanksgiving turkey a few of the Pelican Island Audubon Society.
a Venn diagram of circles for old people, nerds and obsessives … years ago when a fellow birder called and told her “I’ve resisted bringing my iPhone and other gear with me into
but the tide is turning.” that a fork-tailed flycatcher had been spotted at the Sebastian the field. It feels a little bit like cheating to me and I don’t think
Speaking of what some call “obsessives,” and “nerds,” before Inlet and was now supposed to be at the Pelican Island refuge. it’s necessary to be able to identify every single bird and its bird-
we go any further we need to distinguish between a birder and “I didn’t hesitate,” remembers Irvin. “I’d never seen a fork-tailed call. It’s good to be confused now and then.” Sutherland laughs
a birdwatcher. Simply put, a birdwatcher looks at birds while flycatcher and figured this may be my only chance to ever see and then adds, “Besides, I can’t always figure out my iPhone. I
birders look for birds. one. I dropped everything and rushed over.” She got pictures of need my grandchildren to help me.”
Vero Beach-based birding “wunderkind,” 15-year-old Will it, added it to her life list, and – eventually – went back to stuffing Like some other birders I met, Sutherland is also not ada-
Johnson, explains the distinction to me like this: “Bird watching her turkey. Says Irvin with a smile, “First things first.” mant about building a life list. “Truthfully, I am just happy to see
is something your grandmother does in her backyard. Birding is
actively seeking out new species and finding more than anyone
else. Here’s the way I explain the difference: A birdwatcher may
love seeing a cardinal because it’s beautiful. But a birder is often

GREG HILLS
annoyed by a cardinal’s presence because it will scare away rarer
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species. Birders are competitive.” caecepercere tus,
Johnson should know. In 2014 the St Edward’s School junior, nononsu m maximus.
then just 13, spotted more species of birds in Indian River County Avervir ibunc enatur
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than any other birder. After getting interested in birds as a 7-year-
old, he read “book after book” about birds and educated himself For Long Quotes tua oeo
on the Internet. By the time he reached his teens he was compet-
ing with – and trouncing – adults in web-based, countywide com-
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Johnson is typical of many birders in that he readily em-
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braces the high-tech innovations that have changed the pastime.
Binoculars have been improved, as have spotting scopes and dig- –URARESSICIAE
ital cameras. Digital guides offer an alternative to bulky books.
The Audubon Bird Guide app includes information on more than
800 North American bird species, including their birdcalls. iP-
hone apps, such as “Birdsnap,” use facial recognition software to birders are among the first to hear.
help amateur birdwatchers identify species. When the white-cheeked pintail duck, a bird that had never
Birders, many of whom are intent on identifying as many dif- been seen in Indian River County, was spotted at Pelican Island
ferent species of birds as they can, use Internet sites, such as National Wildlife Refuge’s Centennial Pond a few years ago, the
VERO BEACH VERO BEACH
MAGAZINE www.ebird.org of Cornell University and the National Audubon Internet – and telephone lines – went crazy. Hundreds of bird MAGAZINE

DECEMBER Society and www.aba.org, the website of the American Birding enthusiasts rushed to the pond hoping to catch sight of the rare DECEMBER

GREG HILLS
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Association, to keep track of their tallies and alert them to recent visitor and check it off their “life list,” the tally sheet of the dif-
6 sightings. Now, whenever a rare bird is spotted, Internet-savvy ferent species they have seen over their lifetime. 7
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a bird as common as a sparrow or perhaps a roseate spoonbill Acknowledged as one of the most prolific birders in all of Florida
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as long as I am outdoors experiencing nature,” says the retired with a life list of 515 birds, he has been a park ranger and has
chemical engineer. As he talks, I am reminded that one writer led birding tours throughout Florida and other regions for more
called birding “a gateway drug to nature.” Adds Sutherland, “And than 25 years.
I don’t want to compete with anyone else.” Wearing cargo pants, a multi-pocketed “Big Pocket” bird-
Did he ever think of checking out the white-cheeked pintail ing vest and clutching a pair of expensive 12 x 50 binoculars,
duck when it flew into Centennial Pond? “Never! Not for a min- Simpson greets me at the parking lot of the St. John’s Water
ute,” he says with a hearty laugh. “Imagine traveling all the way Management Area, a popular birding spot near Fellsmere and
to Vero Beach to see a bird merely in order to check off your list. known locally as Stick Marsh.
Those guys are nuts!” “You’re in for a treat,” he tells me. “It is nesting season and
there are lots of birds here right now.” As he speaks, he gestures

I
f Indian River County and Central Florida have a “high to a dozen or more startlingly pink roseate spoonbills that are
priest” of birding, it has to be David Simpson. Simpson, flying in and out of a large tree, just beginning to roost. Before
who has been called the “birder’s birder,” is the current he can get his spotting scope set up, he identifies more and
holder of many American Birding Association records, including more birds. “There’s a snowy egret,” he tells me. “Over there is a
first and second place for Florida in the Big Year accounting. common gallinule, a Key West quail dove, a sandhill crane, more
egrets, some least sandpipers, coots, limpkins. At the top of the
tree is an anhinga.”
He’s reeling off bird species faster than I can write them down;
it’s as if I’m flipping through the pages of Roger Tory Peterson’s
“Field Guide to Birds of Florida.” “Just standing right here, I have
often spotted 50 to 60 species of birds,” says Simpson. “This is

GRAHAM MCGEORGE
a fantastic spot for birding,” he says as a double-crested cormo-
rant flies gracefully in a wide arc over the water. I’m beginning to
get it; to understand why birders bird.
As we walk along one of the area’s many drainage canals
Simpson ticks off the reason Florida is such good bird-watch-
ing country. The state boasts a great diversity of temperate and

GRAHAM MCGEORGE
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subtropical habitats, one fourth of the state is protected con-
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servation land, and it lies along the route of tens of millions of nononsu pesi
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The entire time Simpson is walking and talking, he is also


scanning the water, the land and the sky for birds. When I kid
him about this, he admits, “I’m afraid I don’t have an off-switch
when it comes to birding. I suppose . . . ” Interrupting himself, he
says, “Listen to that, it’s the call of the red-shouldered hawk. And
in the background is a limpkin.”
Simpson knows his birds. He points out an American coot in
the nearby marsh and begins an impromptu lecture: “Locals call
them mud hens, they eat hydrilla and other vegetation…mostly
winter here, often in huge numbers . . . most, but not all, leave in
summer . . . very gregarious . . . in early days of taxonomy these
were lumped together with waterfowl because birds were classi-
fied basically on how they looked and then we started learning
more about their genetics. They have a similar lifestyle to ducks
. . . they are convergent evolution but they are birds.”
Scanning the distant sky, he points out a flock of fulvous whis-
tling ducks. I look but see nothing. Later I will discover that Simpson
has what other birders must certainly envy: incredible hearing and
above average 20/15 vision or, as some term it, “bird eyes.”
A few days after my birding tour with David Simpson, I return
to Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge and make a beeline for
Centennial Pond. I have borrowed a friend’s binoculars and have
the birding “life list” I started with David Simpson tucked into
my back pocket. So far I have put 32 bird species on my list.
VERO BEACH VERO BEACH
MAGAZINE After I reach the pond, I spot a group of interesting water- MAGAZINE

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check them out. There is no denying it. I am now, officially, a
10 birdwatcher. Or at least a fledgling. ` 11