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 held near the end of September.
This year’s event has been scaled back considerably, but the birds are still coming.
“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.”
The migrating birds follow the land as far as it goes, and that includes 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.
Few events have been scheduled in 2015.
Friday, Sept. 25, 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. — Birding Tour of the National Key Deer Refuge, Long Beach and Ohio Key sites. Register by phone or in person at the Visitors Center in the Big Pine Shopping Center, 179 Key Deer Boulevard, Big Pine Key. (305) 304-9625. Participation is limited.
Saturday, Sept. 26th — A variety of birding and butterfly walks at the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden. Evening presentation by Dr. Kenneth Meyer of Avian Research and Conservation Institute: “Keep on Trackin’,” using satellites to track local and migratory movements of our Keys birds, including white-crowned pigeons, great white herons, magnificent frigate birds, reddish egrets and others. Contact Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden to register. 5210 College Road, Key West, FL. (305) 296-1504
Any Day, On Your Own — While no specific programs are on tap, Curry Hammock State Park in Marathon and Bahia Honda State Park in Big Pine offer excellent opportunities to view migrating birds on your own.
Curry Hammock State Park, 56200 Overseas Hwy., Marathon, FL 33050. (305) 289-2690. Park has a campground. Your best bet for bird-watching at this state park is with a kayak that allows you to paddle around the island and into coves where birds roost. Day-use fees: $5 per vehicle. Limit 2-8 people per vehicle; $2, Pedestrians, bicyclists, extra passengers; $4, Single-occupant vehicle or motorcycle.
Bahia Honda State Park, 36850 Overseas Highway, Big Pine Key, FL 33043. (305) 872-2353. Park has a campground and cabins. The park’s three nature trails allow you to hike into the woods, but Sandspur beach should also provide a roost for your birding activities. During the fall hawk migration, from mid-September to mid-November, you will see a variety of hawks soaring overhead. Day-use fees: $8 per vehicle. Limit 2-8 people per vehicle; $2.00 Pedestrians, bicyclists, extra passengers; $4.00 Single-occupant vehicle or motorcycle.
National Key Deer Refuge. Visitors Center in the Big Pine Shopping Center, 179 Key Deer Boulevard, Big Pine Key. (305) 304-9625. Explore Big Pine Key and No Name Key by bike should produce plenty of wildlife, or your can take a self-guided tour of Ohio Key and Long Beach ares of the refuge to spot migrating hawks. (Note: Visitor Center hours are unpredictable, so your best bet is to call ahead if you need specific information before you go.)
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.
- The Florida Keys Wild Bird Care Center is a great stop on your visit to the 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