Birding recognition program, statistics and upcoming birding events

With the Florida Keys Birding and Wildlife Festival set for Sept. 25-30, 2012, it is timely to report the latest preliminary findings of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), which offers numerous Sportsman’s Recognition Programs. In 2011, with the exact figure still to be verified, there were 3,312,000 wildlife viewers in Florida.

FWC’s Sportsman’s Recognition Program for birders is known as Wings over Florida. Established 15 years ago, it aims to connect people with the sport of bird listing. There are five levels of achievement.

Starting with James Audubon more than 200 years ago who sighted 497 birds, bird listing has been a recreational sport. Alexander Wilson, the father of American ornithology, also publicized the sport. Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher wrote Wild America in the 1950s, which also popularized birding.

But, birding is not a thing of the past. In fact, Wes Biggs is Florida’s #1 lister with a Florida life list of 470 species. Andy Bankert holds the Big Year record, listing 369 species, in 2007.

According to FWC, Wings over Florida is a free award program that introduces the sport of bird listing to residents as well as non-resident Florida birders. Since 2004, more than 1,300 Wings over Florida certificates featuring artwork by Diane Pierce have been awarded, recognizing an average of 128 species per birder. The average age of awardees is 47, and their age range is six to 74. Birdwatchers from 35 states and four countries have been awarded a certificate. Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Titusville is the most popular site among these participants (www.visitspacecoast.com).

A Wings over Florida checklist and application is available online at http://floridabirdingtrail.com/index.php/resources/wings/levels_of_achievement/

Birding is a nature-based activity which appeals to families. In 2006, approximately 1.36 million people observed birds at non-residential sites; while 2.12 million people observed birds at residential sites (e.g. bird baths, bird feeders). Birding and wildlife viewing has a $5.3 billion economic impact in Florida, FWC found. (Visit http://floridabirdingtrail.com/images/pages/wv_economics_report.pdf).

With 746,000 visitors per year, more people travel to Florida to view wildlife than any other state — 24 percent more than the second-place state, California. (Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2006 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation.)

What may be coming in the future and may be of additional interest to wildlife enthusiasts is a Wings over Florida-type FWC award program for butterfly spotters.

In addition to this month’s Florida Keys Birding and Wildlife Festival (www.keysbirding fest.org), the Brevard Nature Alliance presents the 16th Annual Space Coast Birding Wildlife Festival set for Jan. 23-28, 2013 in Titusville. For more information, contact the festival office at 1-800-460-2664 or 321-268-5224 or by e-mail: festival@brevardnaturealliance.org. Its website (currently featuring 2012 highlights) is http://www.spacecoastbirdingandwildlifefestival.org.

Among the field trips offered at the 2013 event is birding at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge with Andy Wraithmell of FWC’s office of public access and wildlife viewing, and Chris Galvin of Opticron. Wraithmell also will give a Wings over Florida workshop Jan. 23.

The Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail is a program of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, too. At its core is a network of nearly 500 sites throughout Florida selected for their excellent birdwatching, wildlife viewing or educational opportunities. This 2,000-mile, self-guided highway trail is designed to conserve and enhance Florida’s wildlife habitats by promoting birding and wildlife viewing activities, conservation education and economic opportunity. Its website is http://floridabirdingtrail.com/index.php.

Whatever gives wings to your birding aspirations, it’s available in Florida.

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