Great Florida Birding Trail “signs” on in Panhandle
Debbie and five other members of her troop had come to the refuge for a sign-dedication ceremony to celebrate the installation of the Great Florida Birding Trail road signs erected across the Panhandle during December and January. Afterwards, birding experts from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) led the girls and other birding enthusiasts on a wagon ride through the hiking trails in the refuge.
The tour made it clear why the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge was chosen as one of the sites for the Great Florida Birding Trail. During the two-hour ride, 44 species of birds were spotted, including a bald eagle and a clapper rail hiding in the reeds of the marsh. Several species of heron and ibis, along with green-winged and blue-winged teals, were seen. The girls were excited to see ospreys flying overhead, since many of them had voted to make the osprey the new state bird.
The Florida Panhandle offers outstanding birding experiences and fewer crowds, with sought-after species such as the red-cockaded woodpecker, swallow-tailed and Mississippi kites, snowy plover, Swainson’s warbler, Sprague’s pipit and a remarkable diversity of winter visitors (including hummingbirds) not typically found in the peninsula. The Panhandle’s coastline is an important migration corridor for waterfowl, shorebirds, songbirds and birds of prey, as the Girl Scouts from Tallahassee discovered on their first birding tour.
Officials with the FWC, which oversees the birding trail, commemorated the day by thanking the many individuals who have made the trail the success it is today. Attending the sign-dedication ceremony prior to the tour was Wakulla County Commissioner George Green.
“I feel honored to be here today,” Green said. “We’re very happy to be a partner in this project and promise to help the Great Florida Birding Trail in any way we can.”
Mark Kiser, who oversees the Great Florida Birding Trail for the FWC, emphasized the importance of the partners who help make the trail possible. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service runs the refuge, and David Moody, refuge ranger, spoke about the importance of providing great birding sites.
“Birding folks are a dedicated bunch, and they travel and enjoy this part of the state,” he said. “The refuge provides lots of opportunities to see wading birds, raptors and migratory birds, and we appreciate the partnership we have with the FWC.”
Kiser also noted that Audubon of Florida played an important role in the creation of the Great Florida Birding Trail. He introduced a former employee of the FWC who helped bring the trail to fruition.
Julie Wraithmell now works for Audubon of Florida as the wildlife policy coordinator, where she continues to be a strong supporter of the trail.
“I thank the FWC for its commitment to wildlife viewers,” Wraithmell said. “There’s a strong resiliency of wildlife viewing dollars, especially in rural communities. Unlike other popular destinations in Florida, this place is different every time I visit. In the winter, there are bald eagle nests, and in the spring, swallow-tailed kites feed over the refuge.”
Jerrie Lindsey, director of the FWC’s Office of Recreation Services, spoke about the economic benefits of wildlife viewing, noting that Wakulla County is home to seven sites on the Great Florida Birding Trail.
“Birding is big business in Florida, and the Great Florida Birding Trail is an integral part of the Sunshine State’s $5.2 billion wildlife viewing industry,” Lindsey said. “More people travel to Florida to see wildlife than to any other state.”
The Great Florida Birding Trail is a conservation program initiated by the FWC to support the rapidly expanding activity of bird watching. More than 485 exceptional sites throughout Florida have been chosen, based on their quality, and compiled into trail guides representing four geographic regions.
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, one of the Panhandle’s gateway sites, along with the Big Lagoon State Park in Pensacola, provides extensive trail-related resources, with loaner optics available on site. They also act as hubs of regional birding information. Field guides in both English and Spanish are provided to enable visitors to identify which birds they are viewing. Additional materials for beginning bird watchers also are available at each gateway site.
The girls of Girl Scout Troop 854 will not soon forget the cold winter day they rode on a wagon to view some of the most beautiful birds in the world. The tour was just one of the activities associated with earning the Girl Scouts’ “Your Outdoor Surroundings” badge, and becoming life-long wildlife viewers is one of the rewards.
To find out more about the Great Florida Birding Trail and to access maps for all four regions in Florida, go to www.FloridaBirdingTrail.com.