Up close and personal with nature: Rookery Bay festival expands with new name, focus

Lance Shearer
File: The swallow-tailed kite migrates thousands of miles between southern Brazil and Southwest Florida.

This festival is all over the map. The Festival of Birds, sponsored by Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve and coming up Friday through Sunday, Jan. 12, 13, and 14, extends far beyond Rookery Bay itself, or the Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center (ELC) along Collier Boulevard. In addition to a full slate of nature lectures at the ELC, dozens of offsite field trips take participants out into the natural environment.

But organizers are attempting to narrow their scope a little bit, rebranding what was the Southwest Florida Nature Festival as the Festival of Birds.

“We’re trying to refocus on birds, not just nature as a whole,” said Renee Wilson, communications coordinator for Rookery Bay. The nature lectures given at the ELC will concentrate on birds and their environment this year, she said. “But there is still something for everybody.”

File: A white ibis searches the mudflats while a snowy egret keeps watch.

Nature lovers will go birding on the beaches of Marco Island, ride bicycles through the Big Cypress National Preserve on the Bear Island Bike Trip, or take a “swamp tromp” through the waterlogged cypress swamp of the Fakahatchee Strand.

Whichever of the 28 different field trip options participants choose, they will get a chance to explore one of this area’s diverse, sometimes unique, natural ecosystems in a small group with knowledgeable guides to show them what they might otherwise miss.

“This is all about getting up close and personal with nature,” said Wilson. “We take people out in groups of nine, 10, 12, or 15. If there are as many as 20 people on a trip, we’ll have two guides.”

File: White ibis search the mudflats.

With so many activities happening out in the estuaries, backwoods and beaches, many who participate in the Rookery Bay Nature Festival in this, its tenth year, will never get to the ELC, where exhibits, dioramas, preserved and live creatures help educate about our natural surroundings daily, meeting instead at jumping-off points around the county.

File: A burrowing owl guards his nest on Marco Island.

The keynote lecture, which will be Saturday evening at the ELC, comes from Dr. Ken Meyer, director of the Avian Research and Conservation Institute, and will feature his experiences monitoring and tracking birds for over three decades. His research has concentrated, among many other species, on the swallow-tailed kite, which migrates from Southwest Florida and other nearby states to southern Brazil over the course of any given year.

During the 1990s, his team switched from radio transmitters to satellite tracking, vastly improving the range and precision of the work. While you could say his work is “for the birds,” Meyer makes the point that all of us are affected.

“We study birds that are in trouble, for which we need data before we can help save them. Most of them don’t have endangered status” officially, he said.

“If you think it’s okay to lose this piece of the ecosystem, you better realize we are all interconnected. To me, it’s a no-brainer – if we don’t protect what’s alive on planet earth, our own chances of survival are severely constricted.”

File: Clouds of birds enjoy the early morning air at the end of the Tigertail spit.

There are more trips to more places than we can list here, each with its own schedule, cost and requirements or suggestions, such as binoculars for birdwatching walks, and pre-registration is required. Full information and reservations are available online at rookerybay.org, and popular trips with restricted numbers can fill up early.

The festival kicks off a busy season at Rookery Bay, with a full slate of activities on tap. Workshops on beach birds and essentials of digital photography come in January, along with the first in the “Tales from the Coast” evening lecture series on Jan. 24, featuring former Conservancy of Southwest Florida chairman Dr. David Guggenheim. The “Lunch and Learn” lecture series continues on Feb. 20, with a presentation on “Doc Anna: Swamp Doctor of Florida.”

On March 16 Rookery Bay hosts the “Batfish Bash for the Bay,” their annual fundraising gala. This is just a sampling of the many all-natural treats Rookery Bay will offer, along with the ELC, which offers an unbeatable overview of the Southwest Florida environment.

If you go

  • 10th Annual Rookery Bay Nature Festival
  • Jan. 12-14, Friday, Saturday and Sunday
  • Times, meeting places, requirements and costs vary with each field trip. Reservations are required.
  • The Rookery Bay ELC is located at 300 Tower Road, just off Collier Blvd. shortly before US 41. For more information, call 239-530-5940 or go online to register at rookerybay.org.