Tampa Bay Times
Enthusiasm takes flight
Local birdwatcher explains his fascination with the hobby.
The word “birdwatcher” calls up the image of the nerdy Miss Jane Hathaway in the old sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies, says Ron Smith. “Wally Cox would once in a while show up.’’
But those serious enthusiasts who head out in the middle of the night and drive eight hours to see a rare bird, who are forever searching for that bird they haven’t seen, call themselves “birders.”
Smith, 63, a retired St. Petersburg police officer and author of A Birder’s Guide to Pinellas County (Florida), has been an avid birder since 1987 and has sighted more than 700 bird species out of an estimated 850 found in North America. He said some 400 species have been spotted in Pinellas, considered one of the best birding spots in the Southeast.
Smith, who leads birding tours at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve in St. Petersburg the first Saturday of every month, talked with the Tampa Bay Times about his fine feathered friends.
What species are you likely to see in the Tampa Bay area in late April and May?
That time of the year is the bulk of the wood-warblers, and there’s a whole handful of those in the eastern U.S. There’s 40 some odd (species) that nest in the United States. And most of them travel through Pinellas County. Actually what happens is most of them are traveling over the Gulf of Mexico, they’re trying to head north and they often encounter west winds or they encounter a late cold front, and sometimes even a low pressure system on the gulf. It kind of forces them to the east and they end up in places like Fort De Soto Park, Honeymoon Island State Park, also sometimes in inland parks, too. …
There’s also there some different kinds of flycatchers and different kinds of vireos and swallows and grosbeaks and buntings, but it’s the warblers that usually get most of the attention because they’re 5-, 5 ½ inches big and they come in all different colors.
What are their colors?
I think probably yellow is the main color that a lot of them have, but some have some blues and some reds. … But yellow is usually the dominant color. Sometimes these birds are way up in the treetops so you only get to see bits and pieces of them. Sometimes they’re down on the ground. Depends again on the species and it also depends on how hard the front was that they encountered. Sometimes they come into Fort De Soto just out of gas. I mean, they filled up on their insects down south, they showed up at the Yucatan peninsula. They got the weather just right when they left that evening, shot across the gulf and, oh my, they hit a cold front. … And it pushes them over and really wears them out.
It’s amazing to think so many birds fly straight through over the gulf, some 600 miles. How many species do that?
I couldn’t tell you whether it’s 30 or
50, but there are a good number of them that make that flight on the way south and again on the way north. Some of them, like this one called the blackpoll warbler, he’s a Canadian nester … Canada and even parts of the United States. But they end up in the fall, they leave the New England coast and they fly out over the Atlantic and go all the way down into South America. But they’re doing a flight of several thousand miles and they’re only 5½ inches big. …
Even like the ruby-throated hummingbird, which is even smaller, 4 or 4½ inches. … They nest way up in Canada but yet they end up in the Caribbean or the northern parts of South America during the winter. They come flying over the Gulf of Mexico as they’re heading north.
I had a day at Fort De Soto... probably in the late ’90s, I … saw — just an estimate and a very low-end estimate — probably 400 or 500 ruby-throated hummingbirds that day. That was the last day of April. …
A good day for birders, it doesn’t mean it’s always a good day for birds. I say that because maybe 400 made it to Fort De Soto and maybe at least that many or more than that got knocked down into the Gulf of Mexico by rain and wind.
What is your favorite bird to see?
It’s hard to say, because as you go along, you sometimes change. … On top of my list is probably one that we get here in Pinellas County … and it’s called a mangrove cuckoo.
Why do you like it?
Because it’s a secretive bird that hangs out in the mangroves. … Some of these warblers, like the blue-winged warbler and the worm-eating warbler and the American redstart, some of these warblers that are really nice-looking, you might actually see one of those in your yard during migration. He just might happen to fly into your oak tree and you’ve got it. Chances of you seeing a mangrove cuckoo like that are slim and none, and you’re going to have to go looking for it. And the best way looking for it, you’re almost going to have to hear it first. It has an unusual call. … It kind of does a caw-caw-caw-caw-caw-caw-caw-caw.
At book-signings, you say, you often write, “Every bird has a story.’’
It’s true. Be it a small hummingbird or be it a hawk, wouldn’t it … be just amazing to know, first of all, where it was born — and sometimes we do through banding projects — but where it was born, all the adventures that happened through his lifetime? Some birds only live a couple of years, some birds live many years, and it would be amazing to know all the neat stuff that has happened to it. Sometimes when you look at one and you’re out at Fort De Soto Park and migration’s going on and there’s, say, a hooded warbler — which is this bright yellow bird with a black hood over the top of his head — and you wonder, man, where you been the last six months, bud?