By Erika Webb
Like revelers to a main street festival, large groups of robins have been flocking to downtown DeLand in recent weeks.
Arnette Sherman, Friends of Lake Woodruff vice president and West Volusia Audubon co-president, said the migratory birds, in unusually large numbers, have been gathering near shops, City Hall and the old courthouse to feast on the holly berries there.
"People have been commenting," Ms. Sherman said. "It's unusual to see so many in that area."
American Robins are common winter visitors to Florida, according to the Wild Florida Eco Travel Guide.
"Between October and April you can hear their characteristic chattering vocalizations as they gather in flocks around fruit trees and along roadsides. In spring, most robins migrate north to breed, but a few have recently begun to nest in north and central Florida," the guide stated.
Ms. Sherman said spring bird activity seems to be a little ahead of schedule this year.
"I heard the screech owls in my nest box calling the other night so I think they're going to start breeding," she said.
Also in Ms. Sherman's backyard, near Lake Beresford, is a pair of coveted painted buntings. The males of this species look like they rolled across an artist's palette.
"My sister lives about two blocks away and has six of them in her yard," Ms. Sherman said. "I remember asking her, 'How come you have them and we don't?'"
Ms. Sherman said her feeder fare is nothing extravagant, just inexpensive seed and millet.
"I now have (this) one pair and sometimes mine are kind of spotty, sporadic, but sometimes they don't even seem to leave the area," Ms. Sherman said. "It's exciting because they're so beautiful."
She said according to her Florida Bird Book, the birds shouldn't even be here right now.
But according to paintedbuntings.org, painted Buntings migrate south between mid-October and mid-November. Eastern Painted Buntings fly to central and southern Florida, Cuba or the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico.
Painted Buntings migrate north around mid-April. Eastern Painted Buntings spend their summers in northeast Florida, Georgia, and North and South Carolina.
Loss of habitat comprised of "shrub-scrub" type vegetation has contributed to the decline of the painted bunting along the east coast, the website reported.
Locally known for her wildlife photography, Ms. Sherman said her favorite place for bird watching and photographing is Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge -- established in 1964 to provide habitat for migrating and wintering birds -- where some years back there was a pair of rare Whooping Cranes.
Ms. Sherman said those birds have since died in Wisconsin.
"We lose a lot of them (here) to bobcats," she said. "To me they're fascinating."
Ms. Sherman has had her eye, and her lens, on an immature whooping crane, which took up with some sandhill cranes recently in the Lake Ashby area of New Smyrna Beach.
"It was one of the direct autumn release-group of six," she said. "The other five are farther south, where they (experts) expected them to go."
Direct autumn release is a reintroduction technique used for released juveniles to learn a fall migration route from the older, wild birds. This method of reintroduction has been extensively tested and proven previously successful with sandhill cranes, according to the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership's website.
The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership is a group of agencies, non-profit organizations and individuals, formed to restore a migratory population of whooping cranes to eastern North America. There are 96 whooping cranes in the Eastern migratory population as a result of these groups' efforts.
There are fewer than 250 whooping cranes in a single wild population that migrates between northwestern Canada and the Gulf Coast of Texas, the website reported.
"When I posted the picture on Facebook, people commented from Russia, Japan, all around the world," Ms. Sherman said.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the biological diversity of the wetlands at Lake Woodruff provides nesting, over-wintering and stopover habitat during migration for neo-tropical songbirds, migratory waterfowl, shorebirds, wading birds and raptors.
The swallow-tailed kites are due back in early March or April for mating season.
Stan Howarter, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife biologist, manages habitat on Lake Woodruff and Merritt Island wildlife refuges. He said Lake Woodruff is one of the top three staging areas for the swallow-tailed kites which winter in southern Brazil.
"Woodruff is incredibly important for swallow-tailed kites," Mr. Howarter said.
"When they get ready to go back to South America in mid-August they group up and fly together; they group up at the staging area around the lake. It's a very short window. They check their maps and make sure everyone's gone to the bathroom," he said, laughing.
Cues of changes in daylight from the winter solstice to the spring equinox, and changes in temperatures trigger birds to start heading north to their breeding grounds, Mr. Howarter said.
"Some that will be coming through -- that are dramatic and special -- are the neo-tropical warblers, a whole series of colorful birds that birders get very excited about, and are only here for a short time, birds like the painted bunting," he said.
"That's one that people remember for the rest of their life."
Closer to the coast, long-distance migrants like the red knot, an imperiled shorebird, are passing through on their way from the tip of South America back to their Canadian breeding grounds, Mr. Howarter said.
"The entire population migrates together," he said. "They show up in New Jersey and gorge themselves on horseshoe crab eggs to get the energy to make the rest of the trip before nesting and laying eggs."
He said the already declining red knot population will be further impacted by the effects of Hurricane Sandy on its staging grounds at New Jersey's Delaware Bayshore where thousands of shore birds gather during spring migration.
According to the Great Florida Bird Watching Trail's website, Lake Woodruff also is a good place to catch a glimpse of the secretive Black Rail as some migrants make their way back to the marshes of the upper Gulf and Atlantic coasts. They are rarely seen in flight, preferring to creep along and nest on the ground.
The 2,000-mile Great Florida Birding Trail is a program of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and includes 514 sites throughout Florida selected for their excellent bird watching, wildlife viewing or educational opportunities, according to floridabirdingtrail.com.
Ms. Sherman said the main objectives at this time of year -- for anyone yearning to see something unusual in the winged world -- should be to listen, "because you often hear the birds before you see them," and "learn to look up."