Early birders get season’s first glimpse

Nancy Kase, of the Village of Marsh Bend, left; Wendy Milstein, of the Village of Buttonwood, center; and Stan Lavender, of the Village of Gilchrist, watch birds at Fenney Springs Nature Trail.

Birders are coming out of their nests. For some members of local birding groups, staying at home for months left them eager to get out of their houses and see some birds. This motivated the Brownwood Birders to resume birding trips a month earlier than some other birding groups plan to. “We normally don’t start until October when it cools off, but a lot of our members requested we get going,” said Stan Lavender, one of the trip leaders for the Brownwood Birders, an informal group. Its members resumed birding trips Sept. 8, with a trek near the Chitty Chatty Preserve, and continued Tuesday with a walk along the Fenney Springs Nature Trail. Lavender, of the Village of Gilchrist, described these early trips as preseason outings.

Apart from the cooler weather, birding clubs typically start their activities in October to time with the arrival of migratory species from up North.

That’s what the Village Birders are set to do. They’ll restart group birding trips Oct. 12 with a Meet and Bird trip in The Villages led by Alice Horst.

The specific location in The Villages will depend on where the birds are.

“Our leaders are in the field a lot and know the best places, so we keep the schedule flexible,” Village Birders President Gary Babic said.

Socially distanced nature walks

Allowing the trips to return meant following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The Village Birders, for instance, aren’t offering club-sponsored carpools to birding trip sites as they usually do, said Babic, of the Village of Summerhill.

Groups will be limited to 10 people, including the trip leader, he said. If more than 10 people are interested in going, another group with another trip leader will be formed.

The Village Birders’ approach to organizing smaller groups on trips also is being utilized by the Oklawaha Valley Audubon Society, the Audubon chapter for Lake County and The Villages.

Its members have their first field trip of the season planned for Oct. 5 at Pine Meadows Conservation Area in Eustis. They plan to limit groups to no more than six people, said Peg Lindsay, the chapter’s field trip coordinator.

Mask-wearing policies vary among the different groups. The Village Birders, for instance, are requiring masks at all times during bird walks, even in open areas, Babic said.

“This is a requirement in state parks, but we will do it everywhere,” he said.

The Brownwood Birders require masks as well, but offer an option for birders to take masks off for a brief time if they’re more than 6 feet away from another person, Lavender said.

The Oklawaha Valley Audubon Society is not requiring masks on field trips, but Lindsay said if enough people are concerned, she may organize a separate group where wearing a mask is required.

Nature appreciation and citizen science

Despite the need for social distancing, Villagers and area residents welcomed the return of group birding trips in the community.

For people who participate, it restores a sense of normalcy because they can pursue activities they enjoyed before the start of the pandemic put them on hold, Babic said.

“Quite a few people are going out individually, but the advantage of the club walks is we can take people to places they may not know about,” he said. “Then they can revisit on their own.”

The same goes for the Brownwood Birders. Lavender said the group’s trip last week to Chitty Chatty was the first time most members had been there.

Pileated woodpeckers, wild turkeys and green herons are among the species they encountered on the trip that can be seen there year-round, he said. Some migratory species like warblers are starting to come back.

For some members, trips serve a purpose beyond recreation: assisting in scientific studies of birds.

During the trips, members keep logs of every species they identify. Some report their findings to Cornell University’s eBird database, which catalogs the number of unique species in a given location and when they were found.

Later in the year, local birders will participate in the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count, which is the world’s largest citizen science study. Findings from the bird count identify species’ population growth and declines, which may indicate long-term environmental trends.

For instance, Villagers’ participation in the count’s Emeralda/Sunnyhill circle over the years revealed the region leads the nation in populations of the purple gallinule, a colorful wetland bird that stands out for its long yellow legs.

The Villages is ideal for birding because of the presence of parks and preserves rich in wildlife and its proximity to both sides of Florida’s coast, Babic said.

Even when birders don’t encounter a rich species diversity, being outside and part of a group makes the experience enjoyable, Lavender said.

“I think its important to be out and about,” he said. “It helps improve my mental attitude when I see other people and talk to them about things we enjoy doing. It’s good to walk and be in nature and see everybody.”

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.