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Whitney Gray, coordinator of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail, enjoys getting people excited to get out to view nature, especially the wildlife.

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"Twitchers" Scour Florida For The Rarest Bird Sightings

Arguably The Best State For Wildlife Viewing, FL Captures Millions With Its Diverse Bird Species That Converge Under The Great Florida Birding & Wildlife Trail

Birders at the Dry Tortugas National Park are extremely focused [Photo Credit: Whitney Gray]

For the past two years, Whitney Gray has had what she calls a “happy job”: coordinator of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail. A certified ecologist and former science teacher, Whitney previously worked in monitoring rising sea levels and climate change. Hanging out with the birds, bees and butterflies is, she admits, a nice change.

“I’ve been fascinated with nature since my childhood, when I was lucky enough to have grandparents who took the time to tell me the names of the plants, animals and birds,” she says. “Basically my job is to encourage people to do just what my grandparents did for me - get out and enjoy nature.”

Florida is a prime place to appreciate the natural world. The Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail lists more than 500 sites spread all over the state. “We have a lot of protected land in Florida,” Whitney says. “You don’t have to travel far to see tons of wildlife.”

In fact, according to Whitney, Florida is the No. 1 state in the nation as a destination for wildlife viewing. And, perhaps surprisingly, it’s the second most pursued outdoor activity for state visitors. Surveys show that the trend is on the upswing.

“I’m a casual birder,” Whitney says, “but some people are incredibly focused. Some can even identify birds by their songs. We see all kinds of birders come through. One of the major types we call a lister. They keep track of all the birds they see, often using the web app, eBird.org. They’re like Pokemon Go players… gotta catch ‘em all.”

Roseate Spoonbills walk through pond [Photo Credit: Whitney Gray]
Bald Eagles scope their surrounding from tree [Photo Credit: Teresa Darragh]
A Purple Gallinule with chick in the Florida wilderness [Photo Credit: Whitney Gray]

She says a subset of the listers are known as twitchers. “That’s someone who hears about the sighting of a rare bird and drops everything to travel to the area, so they can add it to their list. Right now they’re headed for Pensacola, where two Greater Flamingos have been reported. They are native to Africa and don’t often show up this far north.”

Florida’s unique geographical position is the main reason so many bird species can be seen here. “Storms blow many unusual birds onto our shores,” Whitney explains. “And we have lots of migratory traffic. For birds flying thousands of miles, this is the first place they can land and rest. Birds like the Ruby-throated Hummingbird fly across the Gulf of Mexico all at one go. I find that amazing.”

Whitney tells The Buzz that one of the best places to see migrating birds is at the Dry Tortugas National Park, a string of islands about 70 miles off Key West, accessible only by boat or plane. “It’s really the coolest place, especially during the Spring migration, late April to early May. It’s the first landfall for many birds, and they so exhausted they sit still and don’t seem to care that you are there, which lets you take amazing pictures. Once I say 13 different warblers in a single day,” she says. “For several species, including the Brown Noddy, Masked Booby and Sooty Tern, this is the only place they nest in the whole U.S.”

Another favorite spot is a lot closer to Whitney’s Tallahassee home. “St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is sort of the opposite extreme from the Tortugas,” she says. “There’s always something here to see. This is a great place to see ducks in the Fall. I’ve seen flocks of spoonbills and wood storks, and lots of other wading birds. It’s a salt marsh environment with lots of wildflowers and butterflies.”

Florida is home to about 180 species of butterflies, including several that are critically endangered such as the tiny Miami Blue and the almost-extinct Schaus Swallowtail, both native to South Florida. Whitney admits she’s a fan of the Zebra Longwing, the official Florida state butterfly. Its oval black wings have white and pale yellow stripes, and, she says, if you’re really patient and have binoculars, you can see little red spots on the ventral side.

Imagine trying to spot this one in the wild! A Magnolia Warbler at the Dry Tortugas [Photo Credit: Whitney Gray]
Coordinator of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail, Whitney Gray [Photo Credit: Whitney Gray]
Rare female Ruby-throated Hummingbird rests on a branch [Photo Credit: Whitney Gray]

Although birding, and wildlife viewing in general, is a hobby that usually demands a lot of patience, there’s an element of serendipity as well. Whitney recalls once when she was driving into the St. Marks Refuge where the birding trail maintains a visitor center, she was able to add to her list with no effort at all. “One of the cool birds that’s sometimes sighted at St. Marks during the winter is the Groove-billed Ani,” she says. “It’s an all-black bird with a parrot-like beak, not that super common. So as we drive in, poof!, there one is on a bush by the road, not 6 feet away. I didn’t even have to get out to the car.”

One of Whitney’s favorite birds can be spotted simply by looking up. “Our mascot bird, the Swallow-tailed Kite, can be seen circling over highways, especially during Spring and Summer,” she says. “It’s a beautiful black and white raptor with a forked tail. The cool thing is they are adapted to catch and eat their prey on the wing, so they almost never touch the ground. They are perfectly adapted to flying, and they are so graceful. Many people describe them as elegant.”

Birders are famous for the equipment they carry around to spot - and photograph - the birds they see, and Whitney is no different, taking many of the pictures that accompany this article. “We love our gear,” Whitney says. “There’s lots of great equipment out there, especially amazing lenses. People often tote a spotting scope, tripod, camera, and binoculars. One of the hottest trends is to line up a spotting scope with the camera on a smartphone, which lets you take video as well. They call it digiscoping.”

Seems like everybody’s getting into birding these days. Whitney says she was recently walking through the Orlando Wetlands Park when she spotted three older ladies pushing strollers in front of her. “I thought, isn’t that great, they’re taking their grandkids for a walk,” she recalls. “When I caught up with them, I saw that the strollers were all full of photography equipment. Looked like about $5,000 worth of gear each!”


Renee Wright

A graduate of Franconia College in Social Psychology, Renee has worked as Travel Editor for Charlotte Magazine and has written three travel guidebooks for Countryman Press among other writing assignments. She enjoys food and camping.

Myakka River State Park

Make Sure To Stay At: 

Myakka River State Park, holding Florida's Wild and Scenic River flowing through 58 square miles of wetlands, prairies, hammocks, and pinelands. Visitors can enjoy wildlife viewing from a boardwalk that stretches out over the Upper Myakka Lake.

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