Every fall, the skies over the Florida Keys fill with thousands of birds from hundreds of species heading south for the winter.
For 15 years, folks who love birds and the outdoors have gathered to see, identify and admire them through the Florida Keys Birding and Wildlife Festival, which is Tuesday, Sept. 24, through Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013.
“We are witness to this spectacular migration,” says Kristie Killam, a ranger at the National Key Deer Refuge. “We’ll see birds you don’t normally see – hawks, peregrine falcons, all different species.”
Some species summer in the Arctic, others in Canada or the northern USA. They follow the land as far as it goes, and that means they fly over the narrow strip that is the Florida Keys, often stopping to chow down before heading over water to the Caribbean or Central or South America.
The festival, however, is not designed only for hard-core birders, says Killam, one of the organizers of the year’s event: “I don’t even consider myself a hard-core birder.”
The festival attracts a variety of participants, from the avid birder to the people who want to get outdoors and experience the nature and wildlife of the Florida Keys, especially families.
“It’s almost like a behind-the-scenes tour,” Killam says. “You get to see parts of the Keys you maybe haven’t seen, with people who live here and love it.”
The festival has a strong family focus and one of the best stops for folks with children is the Environmental Fair at Curry Hammock State Park, mile marker 56.6, which will be 10 a.m.a to 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013.
The fair is held on the beach; bring your lawn chair, beach towels and spend the day.
There will be 20-plus booths to explore; a scavenger hunt and hands-on kids projects. Listen to Florida folk singer Grant Livingston from noon to 2 p.m. Take a free shorebird ID workshop with Rafael Galvez at 2 p.m. Burgers and dogs will be sold to benefit the day’s hosts, the Friends of Islamorada Area State Parks. Go on self-guided kayak expeditions and beach hikes. In the evening, there’s a free astronomy program with Elizabeth Moore, NASA Solar System educator.
Admission to the state park is free for festivalgoers the day of the festival.
One of the most popular annual festival events is a bit pricier – the trip to the Dry Tortugas, aboard the Yankee Freedom. The trip, leaves Key West at 7:30 a.m. and returns at 5 p.m. Florida Keys birder and ecotour guide Mark Hedden and wildlife photographers Dick Fortune and Sara Lopez will guide the tour, which requires an additional $25 fee. The ferry itself is $165 for adults. There was discounts for Monroe County adults ($99), seniors and others.
During and after the festival, you can join in the activities of the Florida Keys Hawkwatch, which monitors the bird migration from Sept. 15 to Nov. 13 at Curry Hammock State Park, mile marker 56.1 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, rain or shine. Bring your binoculars! Florida Keys Hawkwatch averages over 15,000 sightings of birds of prey in their southbound migration. See their website for more details.
Events include guided birding and butterfly walks and talks, wildlife photography workshops, citizen science with Florida Keys Hawkwatch and boat trips into the backcountry.
The festival lets you sign up for and pay for individual events in a sort of a la carte menu. Many sell out, such as the Dry Tortugas trip.
The keynote speaker is Rafael Galvez, director of the Florida Keys Hawkwatch, the southernmost migration monitoring project in the continental United States. Florida Keys Hawkwatch documents as many as 25,000 diurnal birds of prey of 18 species during the fall, and more than 120 species of waders, shorebirds and songbirds migrating over the Keys.
Here’s the complete guide to the Florida Keys Birding and Wildlife Festival with information on how to register.
A tip for visitors: Visiting the Keys in September has its advantages – it’s the slowest season of the year with the best hotel rates of the year. Some areas do have mosquito issues, and Killam says you should be prepared with bug spray if you plan to join the Everglades birding outing. Other areas of the Keys generally do not have mosquito issues in the fall, says Killam, who should know: She lives on No Name Key.
More things to do in the Florida Keys
- Print out this mile marker guide to enhance your road trip to the Florida Keys.
- Florida Rambler’s guide to the best beaches in the Florida Keys
- Florida Rambler Guide to the Lower Keys
- Feed the tarpon at Robbie’s Marina
- Tiki bars: Soak up the Keys atmosphere
- Biking or walking the Old Seven Mile Bridge
- Visit historic Pigeon Key in Marathon
- Kayak or canoe to historic Indian Key
- No Name Pub worth finding on Big Pine Key
- Long Key: Beach camping in the Keys
- Camping in Middle Keys: Curry Hammock State Park
- Camping near Key West
- Cabins, off-the-beaten-track, make a good kayaking base