For the Birds Radio Program: Florida for Spring Break!

Original Air Date: April 7, 1999 (estimated date)

The Ericksons took a family vacation to Florida.

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This spring vacation we took our kids to Florida. As a birder, I would have spent the week in the Keys and Everglades and wild spots along the Gulf, but kids prefer the Orlando stuff—three days at Walt Disney World and one at Universal Studios. I did get an afternoon and an early morning for birding outside of Kissimmee—exactly what I needed to see the three lifers I’d hoped for. But we spent the rest of our vacation at theme parks.

Before my trip I wrote to the internet national bird chat asking for suggestions about Orlando birding. I got some good advice, but most birders think that the only way you can survive this kind of family vacation is to leave everyone else at Disney and go birding alone. Apparently outdoors people who love birds are supposed to hate Disney World. I do hate how commercial it is, and how they’ve so degraded Florida’s ecology, but I still had a great time there–we went to the Haunted House and on a lot of fun rides. We even took the Tower of Terror and Countdown to Extinction rides twice. My kids are 13, 15, and 17 now, and I was surprised that they all still liked Peter Pan, Snow White, the Mad Hatter’s Tea Cups, and even It’s a Small World After All.

Of course I wore my binoculars the whole time, just in case, and saw a surprising number of wild birds even in the heart of the congestion. Just stepping out of our motel room to the parking lot in Kissimmee the first morning, we instantly saw the national emblem and the Florida state bird. A gorgeous adult eagle circled over the lot as a mockingbird sang its heart out on the roof above our door. Ubiquitous Boat-tailed Grackles are sort of a trash bird down there, but the males were making all kinds of wonderful vocalizations at the height of their breeding season and I found six nests while standing in lines—all the nests were all in the same species of dense evergreen bush, each bush sculpted into an unnatural shape. House Sparrows and starlings were also everywhere, and above us all Black Vultures and Turkey Vultures circled over the long lines–superstitious people might have thought that an ominous sign.

I’d been expecting to see all of these birds, but there were several other, more exciting and unusual birds that also make their homes at Disneyworld. Each manicured pond and cemented pool had its own contingency of cormorants, herons, coots, and Common Moorhens.

One colorful umbrella above a crowded outside eating area sported a Great Egret, its gorgeous breeding feathers waving in the wind. These aigrettes were so sought by people that the egret was once brought to the edge of extinction. Thanks to protection, egrets made a comeback, Unfortunately, their natural habitat has become so rare that some get edged into the world of Disney.

Every now and then, especially in the late afternoon, a flock of White Ibis flew over, wheeling and circling in the blue sky. These birds are fun to see wading in the water, with their comical down-turned long beaks and pink faces. They also perch in trees awkwardly–almost precariously, looking more gangly than graceful. But they are breathtaking in flight against the blue sky, their black wingtips setting off pure white plumage to perfection, their lightness and quickness on the wing surprising and delightful for such a large bird.

l saw a total of 67 species of wild birds within 30 miles of Disney World, and even more important, enjoyed them while having a wonderful time with my kids. In another year or two, they’ll be too busy for family vacations. I’m glad we seized the day and took this one. Kids are as precious, and their childhoods as fleeting, as the rarest and loveliest birds. It’s nice to have a vacation where we can enjoy both at the same time.