Be it luck, fate, or cowardice, we savored the warmth and sun of Florida during the late January/early February wintery mix that pounded Iowa and much of the rest of the country.

While our driveway was filling up with a foot of snow, we were visiting Key West, the southernmost point on the continental      U. S. When Iowa schools, highways, and even railroads shut down because of the blizzard, we watched and photographed brown pelicans, white ibises, roseate spoonbills, and other fascinating birds at the J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. As friends back home struggled to stay warm, we added snail kites and scrub jays and wood storks and painted buntings to our 2011 bird list.

Luckily, we’d accepted a long-standing invitation from college friends in Venice, Fla. For years, they’d urged us to visit in the winter. This turned out to be the year.

Highlights? We packed a LOT into our 12-day itinerary!  Anhinga Trail, in Everglades National Park, offered some of the most fantastic birding (and bird photography!) we’d ever had. Anhingas, purple gallinules, several heron species, ibises, black vultures – almost close enough to touch. (Just be careful to not step on the alligators!)

I still can see the squadron of seven magnificent frigatebirds hanging in the breeze just 100-feet above the beach at Bahia Honda State Park in the Keys. Unforgettable!

A glass-bottomed boat ride off the coast of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park gave unique glimpses of stingrays, sea turtles, barracuda, and other sea life. Of course the boat trip to and from the reef brought more close-up looks at gulls and terns and pelicans and frigatebirds.

What about a stroll on the boardwalk at the National Audubon Society’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary? This truly is a must-see for any naturalist who visits Florida. From a beautiful yellow rat snake to tiny orchids to monstrous cypress trees to green anole lizards to warblers and aquatic birds, the diversity of life can take your breath away.

We found key deer wandering the streets and back yards of Big Pine Key, near the National Key Deer Refuge. Not so different from Iowa whitetails invading the cities!

Even a drive through the suburbs kept us grabbing for our binoculars and cameras. We’d see whistling ducks, ibises, snowy egrets, brown pelicans, and other birds just a few yards away – seemingly unconcerned about the nearby traffic or people.  Red-shouldered hawks – rare in Iowa – frequent city utility poles and rural roadsides. Anywhere near water, there usually was an osprey or two fishing or nesting nearby.

If there was a down side to this delightful vacation (other than occasional twinges of guilt when we thought of our friends in cold and snowy Iowa!) it had to be the realization that development has profoundly altered Florida’s natural landscape. Condominiums line many beaches. Tourists (like us!) crowd cities and parks and restaurants. Drainage and channelization have changed the water flow that has sustained the Everglades.

We can only hope that local, state, and national politicians will realize the importance of protecting what’s left of this natural treasure – not only for the wildlife that thrive there, but also for the boost to the tourism economy.

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