By Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune
Given the doom and gloom of so much recent environmental news, it may seem strange the upcoming Florida Birding and Nature Festival will be a celebration. Festival organizer Ann Paul, regional coordinator for Audubon Florida, understands better than most the challenges to be faced. However, she also appreciates how much progress, often overlooked, has been made. So, the October 13-15 festival will remind people that the results of conservation triumphs surround us.
Photo: Ann Paul during a birding trip.
For instance, Friday the 13th’s keynote speaker for the event is Capt. Buddy Powell, a manatee expert, while Saturday’s keynote speaker is Reese Collins, regional eagle coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Paul notes that it is telling that both the manatee and the eagle, which were once near extinction, are no longer listed as endangered.
“They are not out of the woods, but they are in much better shape,” Paul says. “And that’s because the Endangered Species Act works. It has worked for the manatee and the eagle, and it is working for other species.”
More than 20 festival speakers at Hillsborough Community College South Shore Campus in Ruskin will cover diverse topics such as the Tampa Bay’s revival, tarpon, butterfly gardens, invasive lizards, frog identification and bird migration hot spots. Workshops on photography, building bird boxes and other activities will be offered. (Full disclosure: I am on the festival’s board, and The Florida Aquarium is a sponsor. The Aquarium’s multi-talented Margo McKnight, Senior Vice President of Conservation, Research & Husbandry, drew its beautiful insignia.)
Photo: A roseate spoonbill takes flight.
Participants can choose from 20 guided field trips to premier wildlife habitat throughout the region, including Egmont Key, the Green Swamp, Fort DeSoto Park, Lettuce Lake Park and Cockroach Bay.
Birders will get the opportunity to see hundreds of species, from roseate spoonbills to scrub jays, but the field trips also will highlight other wildlife, including butterflies, diamondback terrapins and dolphins.
Paul says most of the wilderness tracts that participants will visit are the result of foresight and smart regulations. Some of the lands were purchased through Hillsborough County’s Environmental Lands Acquisition and Preservation program, designed to use a small portion of property taxes for land conservation.
Boat trips to preserves on Tampa Bay will underscore how the estuary is far healthier than it was 30 years ago, thanks to pollution restrictions and shoreline protections.
“There is a lot more that needs to be done, but it is important that we don’t lose sight of how much has been accomplished,” says Paul.
Photo: Avian residents of Florida’s Egmont Key.
Paul helps manage the Florida Coastal Islands Sanctuaries in Tampa Bay, where more than 50,000 breeding pairs of colonial waterbirds nest. The species include reddish egret, roseate spoonbill, snowy egret, white ibis and little blue heron.
Among the festival field trips will be a boat cruise led by Sanctuary Manager Mark Rachal to Audubon’s Richard T. Paul Alafia Banks Bird Sanctuary, where large numbers of birds congregate even when it is not nesting season. The sanctuary is named for Paul’s late husband, who managed the Audubon islands many years and was a tireless and thoughtful champion for protecting natural Florida, as Ann continues to be.
Paul wants those who attend the festival to be exhilarated by the natural beauty they will see and feel enthusiasm for the conservation cause. She also stresses when elected officials are good land stewards, they also are good fiscal stewards.
Photo: Shorebirds at Egmont Key.
Indeed, a Sunday panel will address the “Economic Values of Ecosystems” and a recent University of Florida study that found that Hillsborough ELAPP lands had an annual value of nearly $100 million through functions such as water quality regulation, flood protection and pollution control.
This estimate does not include the economic benefits of ecotourism, nor address how conservation spares governments the costs of providing more roads, schools and other infrastructure to serve the developments that would have gone on many of the preserved tracts.
Paul takes the long view. The evidence is on the environmentalists’ side.
“Some people don’t realize how much it would cost to come up with a system that filters air and water, prevents flooding and produces drinking water. And then there are the aesthetics. How do you put a value on a Tampa Bay sunset? And we are getting all this for free.”
Beyond showcasing wildlife, the Birding and Nature Festival will underscore how all Florida residents should celebrate our conservation progress.
To review festival events or register, visit http://www.fbnfestival.org.