Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary: Land of the Giants

Explore the natural side of the Sunshine State at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, a biologically diverse Audubon property with the largest stand of old-growth bald cypress trees on Earth

The facility’s signage says it’s special because the endangered wood stork nested here and because it is the largest piece of ancient bald cypress forest preserved in the world.

But I think it’s special because walking its 2.25 mile boardwalk takes you into a green and liquid world where at every turn you see scenes so beautiful they could have been arranged by the world’s best floral designer. And, of course, they were.

On a warm, sun-splashed winter day, I stood on the boardwalk at Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary near Naples, Florida and listened as the volunteer naturalist explained how the Gulf Coast is home to protected wetlands and untouched landscapes.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary protects approximately 13,450 acres prized as a fine stand of subtropical, ancient bald cypress forest where many of the soaring trees date back at least 600 years predating the arrival of Columbus in the New World.

Corkscrew Swamp is a freshwater wetland fed solely by rainwater covering thousands of acres of pristine cypress swamp. In this vast area known as the Corkscrew Watershed, a broad sheet of water flows over the land ranging from just a few inches to a yard deep.

This wetland is what south Florida looked like at one time: The fresh water is the lifeblood of the Corkscrew Swamp and of the greater Everglades ecosystem. Over the past century, people have altered the natural flow of the water to control flooding and to create land for development but now we need to restore the natural system.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Often misunderstood, swamps full of plants and insects were marked as areas rife with disease and decay and were quickly drained, stripped by clear-cut logging practices, paved over, and built upon eventually squeezing out wildlife and their natural habitats. But in a state known for rampant development and construction, the swamp and trees at Corkscrew were saved when the National Audubon Society realized the forest needed protection, stepped in, and stopped the logging.

The sanctuary is a popular destination for birders and hikers who walk along a 2.25-mile trail and raised boardwalk that twists and turns through marsh, pine flatwoods, stretches of wet prairie, around a marsh, and finally into the largest old-growth bald cypress forest in North America. These impressive trees, relatives of the redwood, tower 130 feet into the sky and have a girth of 25 feet. Their massive branches are draped with mosses, lichens, bromeliads, and ferns. 

The forest is also home to hundreds of alligators, otters, white-tailed deer, and red-bellied turtles. A wide variety of wading birds, songbirds, and raptors can be seen throughout the year while the fabulous Painted Bunting is one of many winter visitors. Photo opportunities are available at every turn of the boardwalk trail.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The tree branches are draped with resurrection ferns; the roots of the strangler fig wrap around host trees and swamp plants like the waxy aquatic alligator flag tumble over the railings.

Volunteer interpreters stroll the trail explaining to visitors how the wetlands act as filters for pollutants, reduce flood damage by soaking up water during heavy rains, stabilize the soils against erosion, and recharge groundwater during the dry months.

National Audubon began protecting the wading birds nesting within Corkscrew Swamp in 1905. During the 1940s and ’50s, cypress forests in Florida were being leveled for their timber. At the time, Corkscrew was isolated and almost impossible to access. Today it is an oasis in a made-over landscape. In other areas, many of the wild swamps and much of the teeming wildlife that was characteristic of this region less than a generation ago are gone. Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary’s value thus becomes more significant with every passing year. 

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In Florida, two extremes dominate the subtropical climate—wet summers and dry winters. The seasonal high and low water levels are a necessary part of the natural cycle and each is vital for life in Corkscrew.

Visitors load daypacks with sunscreen, water bottles, and binoculars. But according to the staff, they can leave the bug repellent at home because Corkscrew defies all swamp logic: mosquitoes are rarely a problem. A guppy-like fish called Gambusia holbrooki (mosquito fish) feeds almost exclusively on mosquito larvae.

The tiny mosquito-slurping fish get some help from the actual Corkscrew Watershed, a meandering river that flows toward the Gulf of Mexico. Although moving at a snail’s pace, the water in the swamp doesn’t become stagnant and combined with the fish this makes for a tranquil bug-free zone. The constantly moving water also is the reason Corkscrew does not have the dank smells usually associated with swamps.

According to one estimate, 98 percent of all ancient forests in the United States have been logged, so Corkscrew is a rare habitat—a combination of large trees, fallen logs, and standing dead trees that provide wildlife with a variety of places to find food and shelter. In the soupy, subtropical climate, the trees are draped with moss, lichens, orchids, air plants, and dozens of types of feathery ferns. This protected landscape is home to the United States’ largest collection of gangly looking wood storks whose nesting ground is the biggest tract of old-growth bald cypress forest in the world.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 2000, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary including Panther Island received a Ramsar Designation as a Wetland of International Importance. Corkscrew is also a designated Important Bird Area and a major stop on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail. Corkscrew has also been recognized as a Wetland of Distinction by the Society of Wetland Scientists. 

Corkscrew Swamp draws birds and birders by the thousands. In addition to the endangered wood stork, the wetlands are home to more than 200 avian species including barred owls, painted buntings, red-shouldered hawks, white ibises, egrets, herons, and woodpeckers.

Other wildlife abounds as well. The dangling leaves and roots of the watermelon-scented lettuce plants create a safe place for small fish and crayfish to hide or nest. Alligators often sun themselves on the riverbank but they prefer the plankton-laden lettuce lakes— wide, shallow watering holes that are a favorite feeding site for wading birds, otters, and reptiles. The gators are efficient predators. They are one of the world’s largest reptiles but have a brain the size of a walnut—just enough to associate people with food if they’ve been fed by humans but not smart enough to know the difference.

The raised boardwalk makes the perfect way to observe nature from a safe and respectful distance. And it’s the ideal way to appreciate what southwest Florida must have looked like before civilization took hold and transformed the landscape.

Located northeast of Naples, Florida, the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is open daily. The boardwalk is wheelchair and stroller accessible.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary Overview

Location: 375 Sanctuary Road, Naples, Florida

Length: 2.3 mile loop

Phone: (239) 348-9151

Open 7 am. Last admission 4:30 pm. Gates close 5:30 pm. Dogs are not permitted.

All visitors must pass through the Blair Audubon Center which offers a movie about the swamp, interpretive exhibits and wildlife art, a gift shop, and a snack bar. Pay your admission here.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Admission: $14 adult, Audubon member $10, student with ID $6, ages 6-18 $4, under 6 free.

Your admission is good for two back-to-back days so you can show up one afternoon and come back the next morning.

Worth Pondering…

A string of counties studded with emerald-like gulf waters, deep springs and rivers….If you’re looking for a place of stunning natural beauty, undisturbed…habitats and silence, you’ve come to the right place.

—John Muir, 1867

Go Birdwatching for the Annual Great Backyard Bird Count: February 17-20, 2023

Every February people all over the world come together for the love of birds and participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count

It’s time to prepare for The Great Backyard Bird Count! As its name implies, this grand event grew from simpler beginnings that included feeder counts but over the past quarter century the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) has expanded into a worldwide birding celebration that takes place over four days in February each year.

Birdwatching at Whitewater Draw in southern Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This year you can participate in the 26th annual GBBC anytime over President’s Day Weekend—birding as often and as long as you wish from February 17 to 20. It’s free, enjoyable, and easy for people from all walks of life to participate in identifying and counting birds to create a real time mid-winter snapshot of bird populations that provides valuable information for biologists, conservation leaders, and anyone interested in birds.

Birdwatching at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

>> Read Next: What Is Birding?

Last year, birders from 192 countries reported approximately ¾ of the world’s bird species including 7,099 species of birds identified by 384,641 estimated global participants in 192 participating countries who submitted 359,479 eBird checklists and shared 141,990 photos.

Of course, everyone is invited to get involved ranging from first-timers to expert birders. You can provide information about the birds you see at your feeding station or yard and it’s a great opportunity to join together with others including members of your household or a birding club. The Great Backyard Bird Count is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds Canada, and the National Audubon Society, along with the founding sponsor, Wild Birds Unlimited.

Great kiskadee at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park in southern Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, the Great Backyard Bird Count is a global four day event that is easy ands fun—you can participate for 15 minutes or as many hours and days you prefer. By birding during the GBBC you join the other birders worldwide with the common goal of documenting and better understanding winter bird populations, winter ranges, and changes over years.

>> Read Next: The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

Great horned owl at Estero Llano Grande State Park in southern Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to participate

Participating is easy, fun to do alone or with others, and can be done anywhere you find birds.

Step 1: Decide where you will watch birds.

Step 2: Watch birds for 15 minutes or more at least once over the four days, February 17-20, 2023.

Step 3: Identify all the birds you see or hear within your planned time/location and use the best tool for sharing your bird sightings:

Cactus wren at Usery Mountain Regional Park near Mesa, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you are a beginning bird admirer and new to bird identification, use the Merlin Bird ID app to document the birds you see or hear

If you have participated in the count before and want to record numbers of birds, try the eBird Mobile app or enter your bird list on the eBird website (desktop/laptop)

If you already contribute to Merlin or eBird, continue what you are doing. All entries over the four-days count towards GBBC

>> Read Next: Birding in Arizona

Roseate spoonbills at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in central Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Three ways to enter data: Options and step-by-step instructions

Merlin Bird ID

If you are NEW to bird watching and bird identification and have a smartphone, GBBC recommends you use the Merlin Bird ID app to enter your first bird. It is FREE and easy to use.

Using Merlin Bird ID: www.birdcount.org/merlin-bird-id-app

Merlin covers bird species from 7 continents and is available in 18 languages.

Ibis at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in southern Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

eBird Mobile

If you are already using eBird to track your birding activity or an experienced bird watcher, the FREE eBird Mobile app is a fast way to enter your bird lists right from the palm of your hand.

Using eBird Mobile: www.birdcount.org/ebird-mobile-app

Broad-tailed hummingbird at Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park in Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Desktop or laptop

If you prefer to enter your sightings on a computer, perhaps after making a list while on a hike or watching your feeders, the app will walk you through how.

Using eBird on a Computer: www.birdcount.org/ebird-on-computer

Black-necked stilt at Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch in Gilbert, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

FAQs

Why is the count in February?

Originally the Great Backyard Bird Count was held in the U.S. and Canada each February to create a snapshot of the distribution of birds just before spring migrations ramped up in March. Scientists at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, National Audubon Society, Birds Canada, and elsewhere can combine this information with data from surveys conducted at different times of the year. In 2013, the count went global, creating snapshots of birds wherever they are in February, regardless of seasons across the hemispheres.

Yellow-crowned night heron at Valley Nature Center in southern Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where should I count birds?

You can count birds anywhere in the world from any location. Count in your backyard, at a local park, or wildlife refuge or wherever you like to watch birds.

>> Read Next: Guess Who? 12 Texas Birds to Know

Mourning dove at Catalina State Park in southern Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Can I include photos with my checklist/bird list?

Yes, both images and sound recordings can be included with your checklist. They will also be entered into the Macaulay Library archive at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Adding photos is especially helpful if you are reporting a rare or unusual species.

Worth Pondering…

Legends say that hummingbirds float free of time, carrying our hopes for love, joy, and celebration. The hummingbird’s delicate grace reminds us that life is rich, beauty is everywhere, every personal connection has meaning and that laughter is life’s sweetest creation.

—Papyrus

What is the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch?

Over 4.5 miles of trails weave through the park welcoming hikers, runners, bikers, horseback riders, wildlife watchers, and casual strollers

Gilbert, Arizona is located 17 southeast of Phoenix and offers a wide variety of activities but one of its biggest attractions is also one of its most natural: the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch.

Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch in Gilbert was developed in 1999 to provide a combination of three functions: a recreational and educational area, a facility for water reclamation, and a wildlife habitat.

Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Riparian Preserve is easy to access and enjoy with 4.5 miles of trails both paved and unpaved for walking, biking, hiking, or horseback riding. Plus, it’s pet-friendly so you can bring your beloved pooch along as long as it’s cool enough for them (tip: if you’re visiting Gilbert during the summer you’ll want to visit the preserve in the early morning or later at night to avoid dangerous levels of heat).

Ring-necked duck at Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational & Educational Area

The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch in Gilbert offers a multitude of recreational and educational opportunities for all ages. There are over four and a half miles of trails throughout with several interpretive education panels on vegetation and wildlife along the walkways. Other educational spaces include a hilltop outdoor classroom, dinosaur dig site, a state-of-the-art observatory, and hummingbird plus butterfly gardens, to name a few. The Gilbert Trail System connects with the Preserve’s trails which allows for hikers, casual walkers, leashed and behaved dogs, also horses on specific equestrian trails.

Related article: 15 Amazing Places to Discover in Phoenix

There are seating and viewing areas along the Preserve’s paths. Restrooms and drinking fountains are also onsite. Several ramadas and campsites for group gatherings are available by reservation.

Another huge recreational benefit offered is the Water Ranch Lake for fishing. As a part of the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s Community Fishing Program, those looking to fish for rainbow trout, sunfish, largemouth bass, and farm-raised channel catfish can do so with a proper fishing license.

Northern shoveler at Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Water Reclamation Facility

Seventy acres of the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch’s 110 total acres comprises seven water recharge basins for 100 percent of Gilbert’s treated effluent water each filled on a rotating basis. For those of you, like me, who feel compelled to Google the word effluent to get a better understanding of its meaning this is for you. Per Wikipedia, “Effluent is an outflowing of water or gas to a natural body of water from a structure such as a wastewater treatment plant, sewer pipe, or industrial outfall.”

Related article: Amazing Places to Discover in Phoenix’s East Valley

American Avocet at Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to the seven percolating ponds there is also a recreational urban fishing lake filled with reclaimed water. Also, one of the ponds contains a unique, desert-like distribution stream. The Water Ranch in the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch combines the Town of Gilbert Drinking Water Treatment Plant, the Southeast Regional Library building, Fire Station, Nichols Park, and the Salt River Project Eastern Canal. The Water Ranch property stretches from Greenfield Road east to Higley Road containing most of the land between Guadalupe Road and the utility easement.

Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife Habitat

Arizona wildlife including birds, butterflies, insects, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and mammals call Gibert’s Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch home in its various vegetative zones of native riparian, marshlands, and upland vegetation areas. Let’s delve into the birds a little more; the Preserve is a bird watchers paradise with 298 species of birds identified. The National Audubon Society has also designated the Riparian Preserve as an Important Bird Area. Plus, there is a designated garden exclusively for hummingbirds and butterflies. For a close-up view of fish and ducks the urban recreational lake provides guests with a floating boardwalk that crosses the northern end.

Black-necked stilt at Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Programs

There are a variety of programs from public, school to youth and Scout offered at the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch. Public programs such as bird walks with Desert Rivers Audubon, The Gilbert Rotary Centennial Observatory’s Skywatch featuring a 16-inch Meade state-of-the-art telescope managed by the East Valley Astronomy Club, Naturalist Guided Preserve Tours, and the Outdoor Learning Project answering questions like “Can I Feed the Ducks?”.

Related article: Explore Phoenix Naturally

Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Preserve is an excellent field trip destination for surrounding schools to offer a multitude of fun engaging environmental studies of birds, insects, desert life, Arizona groundwater, pollination, fossils, solar energy, and plants. Scout and Youth Groups also enjoy the Riparian Preserve with nature hikes, overnight camping, scout badge work, dinosaur digs, astronomy viewings, and group lessons on wildlife, water, plants, ecology, and conservation.

Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Photo Opportunities

The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch offers a fantastic place as a wildlife habitat, water reclamation facility, and community recreational go-to spot. Still, there are extra benefits to be enjoyed. The Preserve might be the place for you if you’re looking for the perfect backdrop for a family or special event portrait. Or perhaps you’re adding to your nature photography portfolio. It might be safe to say many are looking for ways to make their Instagram pop. Can you say fascinating wildlife, stunning sunsets, gorgeous waterways, tranquil colors, and light? Yes, yes, you can. The bottom line is that there are multiple dynamic photo opportunities for cell phone cameras as well as novice and professional photographers at Gilbert’s Riparian Preserve.

Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hours & Parking

The Gilbert Parks and Recreation Department manages the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch. Hours are from 5:30 am to 10:00 pm with the habitat area open dawn to dusk. The Preserve is at the southeast corner of East Guadalupe Road and North Greenfield Road. The most available parking is on the north and west sides of Maricopa County’s Southeast Regional Library at the furthermost northwest corner of the park near the community fishing lake. Additional limited parking is located on the north side of the park off of E Guadalupe Road.

Related article: Family-friendly Road Trips Through Arizona: Phoenix and Tucson

Worth Pondering…

Observe the wonders as they occur around you. Don’t claim them. Feel the artistry moving through and be silent.

—Jalal Ad-Din Rumi

Hike and Paddle through Ancient Beidler Forest

One thousand year-old trees and native wildlife abound in this pristine sanctuary that has been untouched for millennia

The Francis Beidler Forest harbors one of the last large virgin stands of bald cypress-tupelo gum swamp in the United States. A significant number of rare and unusual plants and animals are found in this unique natural area. Its five major community types provide habitat for an extremely rich diversity of species.

Frances Beidler © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Part of an 18,000-acre bird and wildlife sanctuary owned and managed by the National Audubon Society, Francis Beidler Forest boasts the largest virgin cypress-tupelo swamp forest in the world. The 3,408-acre pristine ecosystem features thousand-year-old trees and extremely rich diversity of species including Prothonotary warblers that nest in the cavities of cypress tree knees.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The forest is part of the Four Holes Swamp, a 45,000-acre matrix of black water sloughs and lakes, shallow bottomland hardwoods, and deep bald cypress and tupelo gum flats. A 1.75-mile boardwalk offers visitors the chance to walk through this unique and wild sanctuary. The Audubon Society also offers daytime bird walks, night walks, and two-hour kayak and canoe trips through the blackwater swamp in March, April, and May when the water level is high.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Francis Beidler Forest is located about an hour from Charleston and Columbia off Interstate 26 in Santee Cooper Country.

Related: South Carolina Has It All

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike through Ancient Beidler Forest

Francis Beidler Forest offers two trails, the old-growth virgin forest cypress-tupelo swamp boardwalk, and the newer grassland-woodland trail. Pets and bikes are not allowed on either trail.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A 1.75-mile self-guided boardwalk trail (handicapped accessible) allows visitors the chance to safely venture deep into the heart of the swamp…to see it the way nature intended.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The new trail system meanders through Longleaf Pine, grassland, and woodland habitats being restored by Audubon South Carolina. Free to the public and open from sunrise to sunset, the new trails give visitors the opportunity to explore a new section of the sanctuary. The diverse habitat attracts birds and other wildlife not typically seen on the Beidler Forest boardwalk such as painted buntings, indigo buntings, blue grosbeaks, loggerhead shrikes, eastern bluebirds, purple martins, and many sparrow species.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Parking for the trail is located only a few feet from the Beidler Forest gate off Mim’s Road. Be sure to watch the bird feeders for buntings, woodpeckers, and sparrows.

Related: 40 Things Only Southerners Will Understand

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Naturalist-guided walks and programs also are available seasonally and by reservation.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Paddle through Ancient Beidler Forest

Now’s your chance to paddle in the still blackwater of a primeval swamp and experience nature as it existed a thousand years ago. The water level is up in Francis Beidler Forest this time of year making it possible to navigate through the largest remaining stand of virgin bald cypress and tupelo gum trees in the world.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Francis Beidler Forest is one of only two old-growth floodplain forests remaining in the state. The other is at Congaree National Park
When the water level in the floodplain is high enough, the Audubon Center offers guided canoe trips through this ancient forest located within the Four Holes Swamp.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Trips are offered on a regular basis Friday through Sunday. Four-hour trips are scheduled each of the three days at 1 p.m.; two-hour trips are available at 9 a.m. Saturdays.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The tours start from a remote landing on Mellard Lake, one of the swamp’s “holes”. Paddling through this open section of blackwater, surrounded by dense, undisturbed vegetation, you’ll feel totally removed from the rest of the world.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After just a few minutes, you’ll enter the woods, thick with 100-foot bald cypress and tupelo gum trees. It’s not unusual to see a variety of wildlife from yellow-bellied slider turtles to brown water snakes to Prothonotary warblers.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be aware, paddling through the swamp can be a bit tricky, especially at lower water levels. It helps to have some kayaking experience to maneuver through the floodplain’s narrow passages. In the spring, you’ll want to steer clear of trees covered with Poison Ivy. But it’s a trip unlike any other in the Lowcountry and so worth the navigational challenges.

Related: 5 Things I Learned While RVing The American South

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cost is $30 for adults ($15 for children 8 to 12) for the four-hour excursion; $20 for adults ($10 for children 6 to 12) for the two-hour trip. The price for the tour also includes admission to the Beidler Forest boardwalk.

Frances Beidler Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reservations are required in advance. These trips are popular, so you’ll want to book early.

Worth Pondering…

As the leaves of the trees are said to absorb all noxious qualities of the air, and to breathe forth a purer atmosphere, so it seems to me as if they drew from us all sordid and angry passions, and breathed forth peace and philanthropy. There is a severe and settled majesty in woodland scenery that enters into the soul, dilates and elevates it, and fills it with noble inclinations.

—Washington Irving (1783-1859), American writer

Great Backyard Bird Count this Weekend

25 years of coming together to watch, learn about, count, and celebrate birds

A plain chachalaca strolls the grounds while a green jay stops for a drink and an Altamira oriole takes a bite of an orange at the feeding station. Three different species of hummingbirds zoom in and out.

Plain chachalaca © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So what’s the big deal about birdwatching? The variety and wonderment of birds! Well to some, it may seem dull watching birds gather seed from a bird feeder or fly and hop within the trees but to others, it’s rather cool!

Vermillion flycatcher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is fascinating about birdwatching is how different the birds are. From sizes, colors, patterns, beak shapes to songs, and with over 10,000 species of birds worldwide, you are bound to see a diversity of birds.

Altamira oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This Friday through Sunday (February 18 through 21) will mark the 25th edition of the event Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). Everyone is invited to take part in the GBBC so your birds become part of the birders’ database used by biologists to track changes in bird populations over time.

Eastern phoebe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Great Backyard Bird Count is a bit of a misnomer in that you can count birds at any location, at any time of the day, for any length of time (but for at least 15 minutes), and enter a new checklist for each new count you make during the 4-day event which is being conducted by birders like you worldwide.

Mourning dove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s easy for people of all birding skill levels to participate and there are ample tools and information on the GBBC website to help new and returning birders get involved this weekend. Last year, an estimated 300,000 people worldwide submitted checklists reporting a total of 6,436 species and they submitted 151,393 photographs in the process. The Great Backyard Bird Count is a joint project of the National Audubon Society, Birds Canada, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Greater roadrunner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“The GBBC is about the birds but it’s also about the people. It’s clear from research studies that getting outdoors or connecting with nature—even watching or listening to birds from home—does people a lot of good,” said David Bonter, the Cornell Lab’s co-director at the Center for Engagement in Science and Nature.

Gambel’s quail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Sometimes people feel intimidated about jumping into the world of birds if they have no previous experience,” said Patrick Nadeau, president of Birds Canada. “The Great Backyard Bird Count is a wonderful way to get your feet wet, feel the warmth of the community, and start to realize the wonders in your own neighborhood. The tools and resources are free and you are helping birds when you get involved.”

American avocet © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Birds tell us how our environment and climate are changing,” added Chad Wilsey, chief scientist at the National Audubon Society. “By joining the Great Backyard Bird Count, participants can contribute valuable data that help scientists better understand our surroundings. Together we can use this information to better protect birds and the places they need.”

Cactus wren © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some GBBC participants discovered a fascination with birds for the first time during the pandemic and found participating in the GBBC to be a welcome distraction as a new birder from Maryland explained: “Like many others, I found solace in the natural world, especially in birds,” said participant Anna Anders about birding during the pandemic. “I had extra time to observe and learn more about them. I began going birding, put out more feeders and a birdbath, took birding classes, and started my life list. I can’t wait to participate in the GBBC and continue my birding journey!”

Gilded flicker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to Participate

Participating is easy, fun to do alone or with others, and can be done anywhere you find birds.

Step 1: Decide where you will watch birds.

Step 2: Watch birds for 15 minutes or more, at least once over the four days, February 18-21, 2022.

Roseate spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Step 3: Count all the birds you see or hear within your planned time/location and use the best tool for sharing your bird sightings:

  • If you are a beginning bird admirer and new to the count, try using the Merlin Bird ID app (www.birdcount.org/merlin-bird-id-app)
  • If you have participated in the count before, try the eBird Mobile app (www.birdcount.org/ebird-mobile-app), or on your desktop or laptop enter your bird list on the eBird website (www.birdcount.org/ebird-on-computer).
  • If you are participating as a group, see instructions for Group Counting (www.birdcount.org/group-counts)
Curve-billed thrasher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bird Photos from the Weekend

Upload your favorite bird images when you enter your Great Backyard Bird Count list in eBird. Your photo will become a part of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Macaulay Library (www.macaulaylibrary.org), the world’s premier scientific archive of natural history.

Turkey vulture © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Images for the Macaulay Library can be uploaded directly from your eBird/GBBC list.

All Great Backyard Bird Count participants are urged to observe birds safely.

Worth Pondering…

There is nothing in which the birds differ more from man than the way in which they can build and yet leave a landscape as it was before.

—Robert Lynd, The Blue Lion and Other Essays

Important Bird Areas for RV Travel

A driving tour of Important Bird Areas that offer fantastic bird-watching opportunities for RV travel

If you’re an RVer interested in bird watching, Audubon’s Important Bird Areas (IBAs) is a great source for planning your next road trip. The IBAs form an impressive network of conservation sites for birds, including expansive lands that support important habitats for birds and other wildlife.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To date Audubon has identified 2,832 IBAs covering 417 million acres of public and private lands in the United States. You may be familiar with many of these IBAs, as some are already protected as national parks and national wildlife refuges—some are small and some expansive—but all are significant. Of the 2,832 North American IBAs, 720 are considered of global importance, 113 are listed as continental importance, and 1,999 are of state importance.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Following are five of our favorite IBA destinations in the US for bird watching and the enjoyment of the natural environment during our RV travels.

New Mexico: Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is the winter home of thousands of sandhill cranes, snow geese, ducks, and other waterfowl. The annual arrival of the sandhill cranes is celebrated by a 6-day festival each November. The Festival of the Cranes is scheduled for November 20-23, 2019. The cranes and snow geese generally remain on the refuge until mid-February when they return to their breeding grounds in the north.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Even with their departure the refuge remains a wonderful place for hiking, biking, and wildlife- and bird-watching year round. You will want to drive the auto Tour Loop to get up close to the wildlife and their habitat.

Florida: Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is an important National Wildlife Refuge on the Atlantic coast of Florida. It is also a ‘gateway site’ for the Great Florida Birding Trail. Recreational opportunities are offered at the Refuge from manatee and bird watching, to fishing and hunting. The Visitor Information Center located 4 miles east of Titusville, Florida, is a great place to start your visit.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Consisting of 140,000 acres, the Refuge provides a wide variety of habitats: coastal dunes, saltwater marshes, freshwater impoundments, scrub, pine flatwoods, and hardwood hammocks. The refuge’s coastal location, tropic-like climate, and wide variety of habitat types contribute to the refuge’s diverse bird population. To date, 358 species have been identified on the refuge.

Arizona: Gilbert Riparian Preserves at Water Ranch

Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch is managed as a part of the City of Gilbert water treatment facility. The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch features hiking and equestrian trails. The preserve provides a great opportunity for wildlife and bird watching and is considered the premier bird watching facility in the Phoenix metro region. Approximately 250 species of birds have been sighted here.

Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The preserve also has the only valley astronomy observatory open to the public every Friday and Saturday evening from dusk until 9:30 p.m., subject to weather conditions.

Texas: Laguna Madre

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Texas coast is bordered by the world’s longest barrier island system. Part of this system forms the Laguna Madre whose mosaic of coastal wetlands, freshwater ponds, and native grasslands provide critical habitat for migratory waterfowl, waterbirds, shorebirds, raptors, and songbirds.

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Laguna Madre includes privately owned cattle ranches (Kenedy and King Ranches), federally owned conservation areas (Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge and South Padre Island National Seashore), and coastal communities.

South Padre Island Birding Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge is host or home to an incredible diversity of migrating birds that funnel through the tip of Texas in an effort to avoid flying too far east, over the Gulf Coast, or too far west, over the desert. In addition, many southern species reach their northernmost range along the Rio Grande.

South Padre Island Birding Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A slender thread of land between the shallow Laguna Madre and the rolling Gulf of Mexico, South Padre Island anchors the World Birding Center with nature adventures in every season.The nature center offers more than 3,300 linear feet of boardwalk, five bird blinds, and a five story tower with spectacular views of the Laguna Madre, beaches and dunes of South Padre Island, and the Gulf of Mexico.

Louisiana: Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge

Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge is an epic birding destination near Lake Charles. This is due to the fact that it is at the convergence of the Mississippi and Central flyways. Numerous birds make year-round residences here while millions make their way through this region in the spring and fall during migration.

Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cameron Prairie is your chance to truly enjoy the Louisiana Outback at its finest. Wildlife is abundant and makes wildlife viewing and photography opportunities endless. The best places to spot wildlife are the Pintail Wildlife Drive, the visitor center, and all along the Creole Nature Trail.

Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Legends say that hummingbirds float free of time, carrying our hopes for love, joy, and celebration. The hummingbird’s delicate grace reminds us that life is rich, beauty is everywhere, every personal connection has meaning and that laughter is life’s sweetest creation.

—Papyrus