Florida Keys locals and tourists are looking to the skies this week in celebration of the spectacular fall bird migration.
Bird enthusiasts are hosting their 15th annual, six-day Florida Keys Birding and Wildlife Festival. Events continue through Sunday.
"The Keys are a hugely important part of the fall migration, especially for raptors and songbirds," festival coordinator Kristie Killam said. "They track the Keys on their way down. It is their last stop to eat and drink before taking off en route to their winter destinations."
The Key West Wildlife Center is bustling this time of year, helping young hawks and other birds who become dehydrated on their first migration, center officials said.
People are encouraged to call the Wildlife Center at 305-292-1008 if they spot a bird in distress.
The Birding and Wildlife Festival includes a variety of activities from Key Largo to Key West. Signature events include an excursion to Dry Tortugas National Park, guided birding and butterfly walks and talks, wildlife photography workshops, a free all-day wildlife fair, citizen input with Florida Keys Hawkwatch and boat trips into the Keys' backcountry.
This year's festival keynote speaker, Rafael Galvez, is the director of the Florida Keys Hawkwatch, the southernmost migration monitoring project in the continental United States.
Florida Keys Hawkwatch documents as many as 25,000 diurnal birds of prey of 18 species in the fall, and more than 120 species of waders, shorebirds and songbirds migrating over the Keys.
Galvez has participated in conservation and education projects in Florida, Latin America and Eurasia.
He is a member of the Miami-based Tropical Audubon Society board of directors, for which he focuses on Everglades conservation issues, and is the publisher of the organization's print publication.
Galvez will be giving a talk from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday at the Marathon Garden Club.
All of his guided bird walks are sold out.
There will be guided bird and butterfly trips hosted by experts from throughout South Florida, Killam said. In addition to migrating hawks, falcons and songbirds, festivalgoers will witness rare endemic bird and wildlife species in their tropical habitats in the Keys.
Participants will explore many Keys natural gems, including the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden, Keys federal Fish & Wildlife Refuges and half a dozen state parks.
On Saturday, organizers will host a free family event from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Curry Hammock State Park, at Mile Maker 56, with 15 booths, music and food.
Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden will also host an all-day event Saturday featuring bird and butterfly walks and outdoor photo tutorial.
On Sunday, Key West birding guide Mark Hedden and South Florida photographers Dick Fortune and Sara Lopez will lead two groups on a daylong trip via ferry to Dry Tortugas National Park, a favored bird stopover 70 miles west of Key West.
Hedden will also be giving a talk at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Key West Botanical Garden titled "The Magnificent Seven." The talk will focus on seven birds not commonly found outside the Keys.
For the full festival schedule and registration details, visit www.keysbirdingfest.org.
The Florida Keys Birding & Wildlife Festival is sponsored in part by the Monroe County Tourist Development Council.
For more information about the event or registration, contact Killam at 305-304-9625 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.