On a recent Saturday morning, the scene around a lake at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden felt almost like a religious experience, with a cluster of people silently mesmerized by the blue sky and lush foliage surrounding the water.
They were in search of the long-legged great blue heron, the largest of North America’s wading birds.
The heron wasn’t to be found this day, but that didn’t deter the birding enthusiasts. They were on an early morning bird walk at Fairchild, a relatively new outing on weekend mornings that will run through the month of June before resuming in the fall.
The 83-acre garden in Coral Gables is home to about 100 different species of birds, including Swallow-tailed kites, hill myna birds and painted buntings, the songbird whose male species has a brilliant palette of blue, green, yellow and red feathers.
Many of the birds are year-round residents and are attracted by Fairchild’s vegetation and its 11 lakes. Among them are wading birds, including the great blue heron, the green heron and the great egret. Also, cormorants and anhingas, as well as moorhens and coots, are common sightings. Other resident birds include the northern cardinal, blue jays and white ibis.
In the winter, visitors can spot the songbirds like the painted bunting; during the spring and fall migration, small birds like the northern parula, the Cape May warbler and yellow-throated warbler can be seen.
“We train our volunteers to collect data on different birds and prepare for the birding season,’’ said Gabriela Orihuela, visitor experience manager at Fairchild. “We created a brochure that would guide our visitors and help them identify the different habitats for birds.’’
Orihuela, who is originally from Lima, Peru, studied biology before moving to the United States in 1998 to pursue her master’s degree in environmental science from Florida International University. She helped establish the bird walk tours as part of the James A. Kushlan Bird Conservation program, which was established in 2009 at Fairchild to provide environmental education, citizen science and biodiversity restoration.
The bird walks also teach people about the birds’ habitats.
Wading birds are found in the lakes and the native plants with berries feed the hummingbirds. Migrating birds will descend to the arboretum area to look for shelter, a resting spot and food. Red-bellied woodpeckers and the eastern screech owls love to use dead palms for nesting sites.
Richard Tuttle, an ordained minister and retired chaplain, was the tour guide on a recent walk. Tuttle, who has always been interested in nature, decided to volunteer at Fairchild when he heard about the opportunity to learn more and teach people about birds. He talked about the fascination he sees among the visitors.
“We were noticing a migration coming from the Caribbean,’’ he said. “Different times of the year, you’ll see different birds. That’s part of the excitement of the bird walk. I enjoy seeing people being interested in seeking information on their own about these birds.’’
Some of the birds people can spot include the well-known anhingas, cardinals and doves. Birders can also spot less well-known birds like the moorhen, a duck-like bird that floats and walks on submerged vegetation, and the raptor, a bird of prey with powerful talons.
Rebecca Butler, who works with Orihuela, said she was surprised with the high interest level of the bird walks.
“I had no idea there were so many bird lovers,” she said. “This is becoming something very popular that I think more people will become involved with as time goes on.’’
For local Jean Bassin, seeing birds she had no idea she could find in South Florida made the tour worthwhile.
“The macaws were just incredible,’’ said Bassin, a retired banker who has been visiting Fairchild with her husband for 13 years. “A flock of about five or six macaws flew overhead, and then we saw a woodpecker and a beautiful cardinal.’’
Bassin, who uses a scope because she is legally blind, has her husband guide her in spotting the birds.
“We’re a team,’’ she said. “He spots them and shows me where to look.’’