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Here today, gone tomorrow

By Staff | May 13, 2009

Taking part in celebration of International Migratory Bird Day, three members of the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge family – Ranger Toni Westland and volunteers Danny Souers and Michelle Giesel – made their way to Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens last Saturday, offering their expertise on Southwest Florida’s true “snowbirds.”

“Today is all about education,” said Souers, a Fort Myers resident and “Ding” volunteer for the past eight years. “Seeing the kids and grownups learning so much about these birds and what they go through really makes it worthwhile.”

Souers became interesting in birding after spending years as an avid nature photographer.

“Just seeing their antics is amazing,” he said. “And when you’re shooting in high-speed and stop their motion in mid-flight, you notice things that you’ve never seen before. They’re just wonderful.”

At the “Ding” Darling booth, the trio gave away a commemorative poster celebrating International Migratory Bird Day 2009, handed out activity books and colorful stickers, offered interactive displays featuring realistic reproduction skulls of several bird species and conducted a migratory bird game for children, an educational activity masked as a fun game.

“Most of the kids we’ve seen don’t know what migratory birds have to go through, from crossing roads to stormy weather to encountering birds of prey or other predators,” said Giesel, who lives in Fort Myers and has served as a refuge volunteer for about two years. “And they’re really surprised about how far some of them can travel.”

White pelicans, for example, spend the winter months in the Southwest Florida region – and, with a wingspan measuring approximately 10 feet, are the largest migratory bird seen on Sanibel – and the summer months in Central Canada.

According to Westland, more than 280 different types of birds can be found at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge throughout the year, but only about one-third of that number are year-round residents.

Along with white pelicans, other “snowbirds” of this region include the black-bellied plover, blue-winged teal, belted kingfisher, black-necked stilt, red-breasted merganser and pied-billed grebe.

Westland also explained that other species of shorebirds, like the willet and spotted sandpiper, may choose to stay here longer into the spring for mating season. At the refuge, staffers do what they can to assist “Mother Nature” with the process.

“We’ll draw the water down, which stops the tide from going in and out,” she said. “We have to check the oxygen levels all the time, because not enough oxygen is bad for the fish, but it’s only for about two weeks. Local fishermen have to adjust their routine a little, but they have to realize that, for us, wildlife comes first.”

Several information kiosks set up at the zoo, with staff members and interns from Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, Collier County Audubon Society and the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum handing out pamphlets, coloring books, posters, stickers and fans to zoo visitors.

“Doing the wetwalks is definitely my favorite,” said Meggan Harrington, 15, an intern with Big Cypress National Preserve. “I like seeing all of the orchids and the visitor’s center is always busy. There’s something for everybody to enjoy, especially if you like to look at birds.”

Brian Zepeda, a member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, gave two special presentations about how his tribe learned to appreciate what birds did to help sustain human life. One story he told described the “Dance of the Whooping Crane.”

International Migratory Bird Day (IMBD) was created in 1993 by visionaries at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. From 1995 to 2006, the program was under the direction of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Because of its consistent growth, IMBD is now the premier education project of Environment for the Americas. IMBD continues to focus attention on one of the most important and spectacular events in the life of a migratory bird – its journey between its summer and winter homes. Today, it is celebrated in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Central America through bird festivals, bird walks and educational programs.

“Some people are now growing up being educated about how important these birds are,” added Souers. “That generation will soon become an influential presence and will be the ones to decide our future based upon what they know. That’s where we have to start first – educating the young.”