Mead Botanical Garden is a haven for an array of species, from barred owls to hooded warblers.

Seen often with wings spread out to dry, the anhinga in full breeding plumage has a blue ring around its eye. Photo by Scott Simmons.

Seen often with wings spread out to dry, the anhinga in full breeding plumage has a blue ring around its eye. Photo by Scott Simmons.

In the bird world, magical and mystical Mead Botanical Garden is a can’t-miss layover during annual migratory journeys. Like Central Florida itself, the garden encompasses a curious and colorful combination of permanent residents and short-stay tourists, many of them quite literally snowbirds.

Consequently, birders toting binoculars and cameras have for years sought (and usually found) rare and beautiful feathered friends whiling away the hours within this lush and primal 48-acre urban oasis, tucked away at the end of South Denning Drive and bounded by Pennsylvania Avenue and Howell Creek.

The trick, birders say, is to watch for motion in the trees. Then, as soon as movement ceases, use your binoculars to find the bird. If you’re lucky, and if the winged traveler is hungry after a long flight, it may rest for a moment to feed. Then, if the light is just right, you might see a colorful American redstart or hooded warbler.

“I can identify the larger birds; it’s those little ones that hop around in the trees that are so difficult,” says Barbara Miller, who took up bird-watching about four years ago, when she retired. “If they would only stand still long enough, I could see their markings.”

Birds, of course, are notoriously peripatetic. And migration — the mass movement of birds toward their breeding grounds — is spectacular, complex and difficult to generalize.

Throughout the world, the precise timing for the arrival of migratory birds varies, and much depends on geography, habitat and weather as well as species. For example “early spring” might mean early February as far south as Florida.

While spring and fall are best for birding, you can generally find interesting birds any time of year in the garden. And even when some species have flown the proverbial coop, you may still be able to observe such year-round homebodies as Cooper’s hawks, barred owls, anhingas, red-bellied woodpeckers, distinctive wood ducks and Carolina wrens.

Cedar waxwings, palm warblers, gray catbirds and rufous hummingbirds winter in the garden. And truly, can you blame them? Then, in the spring, usually during April and May, there’s a northward flood of songbirds — wood warblers, tanagers, buntings, grosbeaks, orioles, vireos and thrushes — who stop by during their return from the tropics.

For many birders, wood warblers are particular favorites. At the garden, more savvy — and more patient — birders may spy 25 or more different warbler species during spring or fall migration.

Along Howell Creek and around Alice’s Pond, you’re also likely to see wading and diving birds such as great blue herons, green herons, wood storks, white ibis and great egrets, among others.

In all, there are about 180 different bird species included in the Mead Botanical Garden Birding Checklist, which can be downloaded at the garden’s website.

So what’s the otherworldly attraction that this Winter Park wonderland holds for all things feathered and winged? How did it become the avian equivalent of Disney World?

“The flowing water of Howell Creek and the insects that breed around the creek are the main attraction,” says birder Bruce Anderson, co-author of The Birdlife of Florida, a reference guide of Florida’s avifauna.

Ironically, the way in which the area around the garden has been developed also likely plays a role. The surrounding residential neighborhoods are older, more lushly landscaped and shaded by massive trees.

“From the air, these large green areas look very attractive to a migrating bird,” Anderson adds. That, he says, is one reason you can see so many more birds — and a wider variety of species — in the garden than in the Genius Drive Nature Preserve, also a bird haven but with less green at its periphery.

In addition, the garden’s variety of habitats, including wetlands, open water and an upland area replete with oaks and tall pines, appeals to a number of species, making it an ideal “migration trap.” That’s a birding term for a place where birds can stop for nourishment and rest before continuing their journeys.

If you’d like to check out this enchanting alternate universe for yourself, the Orange Audubon Society offers free guided Mead Garden Bird Walks every Saturday in April, complete with loaner binoculars and assistance using them. The walks begin at 8 a.m. and end around 11 a.m., depending upon the weather — and the birds. No reservations are needed.

Organized in 2011 by former society president Dick Smith, the walks are led by experienced birders like Larry Martin, the society’s garden liaison, who helps participants find species and identify their distinctive markings, special songs and interesting behaviors.

Many of the 25 or so aviary enthusiasts who show up for the walks are older. But a few young whippersnappers — that name sounds a bit like a bird species, but surprisingly it isn’t — are discovering the joys of birding.

Avery Chan, 12, from Oviedo, saw a magnolia warbler for the first time last year during one of the walks. He promptly added it to his “life list, a spreadsheet of all the different species he has personally encountered.

There are about 10,000 species worldwide, so he’ll likely never see them all. Still, there’s a measure of satisfaction in adding a new one to his roster, which now numbers about 200.

Avery avidly reads bird books and stays close to the guides during the walks, says his father, Augustine Chan. Often, though, he speaks up with a measure of authority that impresses even the group’s most knowledgeable veterans. On a recent walk, for example, he explained how to tell the difference between a black vulture and a turkey vulture, both common species throughout Florida and the Southeast.

“We’ve seen the same birds, so we have the same life list” says Augustine, who was drawn to the hobby by his son’s enthusiasm and ferries him around the state when news spreads of an unusual sighting. They once drove three hours for a chance to glimpse a bar-tailed godwit, a rarity in Central Florida. The bird, however, remained frustratingly elusive.

“Mead Garden is a special spot for birding,” says Martin, noting that 57 different species were spotted during October, including black-throated green warblers, hooded warblers, magnolia warblers, and chestnut-sided, bay-breasted and Cape May warblers.

Local birders also maintain a Facebook page called Mead Garden Bird Sightings. Visit meadgarden.org for more information.

“I hoped that the bird walks would connect the Orange Audubon Society with the community and with Mead Garden,” says Smith. “I also hoped that the community would learn about the significance of the garden to birds and to individuals who love seeing them.”

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With a distinctive guttural song, the solitary, yellow-billed cuckoo is more easily heard than seen as it forages in treetops searching for caterpillars before migrating to South America for the winter. Photo by Sherry Fischer.

If you’re lucky — and stealthy — you may see a solitary hooded warbler in the cypress trees near Howell Creek during migration. Photo by Laurence Taylor.

If you’re lucky — and stealthy — you may see a solitary hooded warbler in the cypress trees near Howell Creek during migration. Photo by Laurence Taylor.

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The cedar waxwing (above) arrives in the winter to feast on mulberries and other fruit as well as flowers and insects. Rare and beautiful, the colorful Cape May warbler (below) visits during migration to feed on the nectar of flowering trees. Photos by Laurence Taylor.

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The increasingly rare tricolored red-headed woodpecker stores nuts and acorns in the crevices of trees. Photo by Laurence Taylor.

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Striking barred owls have nested in Mead Garden for years, producing a brood of owlets. Photo by Laurence Taylor.

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The Cooper’s hawk, in residence year-round, has short, broad wings and long tails, ideal for fast flight and catching prey. Photo by Scott Simmons.


About the Photographers

• Sherry Fischer grew up in the St. Petersburg area and has lived in Seminole County for 41 years. Upon retiring from a career in higher education in 2007, she developed a passion for birding and photography.

 Scott Simmons has been an avid nature photographer since 2001. Upon moving to Florida in 2010, his interests turned to birds. The Orange Audubon Society Bird Walks at Mead Garden expanded his knowledge. You can see more of his photography at learnoutdoorphotography.com.

 Laurence Taylor, an architectural photographer for 25 years, enjoys birding and photographing birds in his spare time. While participating in the Mead Botanical Garden bird survey from 2004 to 2010, he photographed dozens of species there. Some of the photos in this article appear in his book, Impressions of Mead Botanical Garden.