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Ecotourism on Florida's Space Coast
Titusville Outdoors

Another Rarity in Florida

By: David Faulkner

Last year I was inspired to write about my first visit to the 'Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival' in Brevard County, which fortuitously was 'back-to-back' and only an hour's drive from the '50th International Wire and Cable Symposium' in Disney World, Orlando.

By happy coincidence these two events were again 'back-to-back' in November 2002. My first impressions of the birding festival were so good that I extended my stay to include not one but three days of this five-day event. I am writing about it now so that you might also enjoy the Festival as a holiday in itself, part of a family holiday, business trip or 'winter' break. It's easy to get to with a little mouse clicking on the web and is conveniently close to the Florida coast, NASA and the resorts of Orlando. The well-organised field trips and friendly people make it all worthwhile.

The whooping cranes I saw are being reintroduced into Florida with support from conservationists. They hatch them artificially in northern latitudes near the USA/Canada border, imprint them on white-gowned humans, teach them the old migration route by ultra-lite plane and then track them by radio as they mingle with the incumbent sandhill cranes.

Compare this with the reintroduction of 'homo-sapiens-brittanicus'. They are also hand-reared in northern latitudes, across the ocean though, in the 'Old World'. They are imprinted with the likes of 'Snow White' or 'Shamu' the whale but then have to be flown by Virgin Airways to intermingle with incumbent American types in the Disney/Sea World area.

Some inquisitive birds, like snowy or great egrets, go 'human watching'. Sea World is ideal, with lots of animal-loving humans, lakes, and plenty of fish and fries to scavenge. How could a 'human watcher' tell a Brit from the incumbent 'homo-sapiens-americanus'? Best to listen to their 'call' rather than try to identify plumage, which is variable. They could start with the word 'Florida' listening for the short 'o' as in 'florid'. This is easily picked-out from the local 'Floorida'.

I enjoyed three field trips. The highlight was a high-speed eco-tour by airboat, snapping up bird and alligator photos. Afterwards I was treated to a mixed brunch of 'gator tails, frogs legs and catfish. The Americans were more than happy to supplement my helping, which made up for lack of breakfast.

The second field trip took in the whooping cranes, wild turkeys, caracara and snail kites at Lake Kissimmee and then on to 'Forever Florida', a privately run wetland wilderness, with a tour by a four-wheel-drive swamp-buggy. Although we narrowly missed a tornado, which touched down on the lake about half an hour after we left, I was able to get a first taste of a tropical storm from the safe confines of the log-built restaurant. Erosion of the dirt track from the rain caused the swamp buggy to 'bottom-out' as it climbed over a small bridge and it came to a grinding halt. Contrary UK TV stereotypes, the Americans took the wait for a replacement in their stride with good-natured banter, while the Brit amused himself by thinking about the balmy weather the day before on the airboat tour.

At the festival barbecue that evening there was a folk band which played some tunes I know well with a bluegrass style. I couldn't resist the opportunity to 'Call' an English Dance to perk up the proceedings, which were dampened by 'English' rain and some minor flooding on the road to the Ranch. How could I take the blame for this, my suitcase was limited to 25kg?

My final field trip also required a start before dawn to see the red cockaded woodpecker (RCW), a rarity of Florida. That morning the rain was still coming down and I had left my cosy bed at 5 a.m. For an hour nothing happened. Nothing to see except a hole in a pine tree. My mind drifted back to the hotel and possible breakfast at 8:00 a.m. In the absence of action, conversation turned to jazz. Perhaps sensing our disappointment, Jeff Bouton, a field trip leader, and excellent karaoke singer broke out with an old jazz number 'Boot Scootin Boogie'. Immediately the whole colony of RCWs came out squawking and flitting from tree to tree. If he had started his song an hour or so earlier, could he have saved us a wait in the rain and would we have been readier with our cameras?

The link between the bird festival and the rediscovered rock shrimp deserves a special mention. Throughout the year, Laurilee Thompson organises the festival and helps her family run a large restaurant known as the Dixie Crossroads. This is by far the best place for the eco-tourist to eat. The walls are painted with murals of the fauna and flora of Florida. Rock shrimp are a local speciality there and they were also plentiful at the BBQ. My total of 70 or so birds came nowhere near the 160 identified by the winning team from Canada, so no lavish prizes for me, but I was treated to a complimentary meal at the restaurant and was made most welcome again during my stay. One of the field trip leaders, Roger Grimshaw, made his escape from England 30 years ago and is a resident in the Orlando area. We enjoyed chatting about old times during the prize-giving and have exchanged the odd e-mail since. If you like making new friendships as well as birding I can thoroughly recommend 'The Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival'.

On my return I was pleased to hear that during the Festival, sharp-eyed trip leader Murray Gardner, spotted a 'Mangrove Swallow'. This had now been verified and is a first for the USA!.
Mike Boone took this photo in Costa Rica.

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