Debra Segal held her binoculars up to her eyes instinctually as a bird flew overhead.
“Oh, look! A red-tailed hawk,” Segal said.
To her right, a birdhouse swung in the wind. Her house, a quaint white home tucked away in the woods of north Gainesville, was to her left as she sat on the patio chair. On the windows, triangular stickers reflected in the sun, warning away any birds that might be tricked by the reflected trees and fly into their panes.
The home was a display of her passion for bird-watching. Segal, president of the Alachua Audubon Society and a former environmental scientist, said bird-watching is a combination of her appreciation for nature and her love of birds. In hope of spreading her passion throughout Alachua County, Segal and the Alachua Audubon Society donated six bird-watching kits to the Alachua County Library District (ACLD) in September.
The kits, which anyone with a library card can check out, include a backpack, a set of binoculars, a guidebook of bird species, and a folder containing information about conservation and bird-watching basics. Segal said this initially came from an initiative to make environmental education materials more accessible for homeschooled children in Alachua County.
Another Florida Audubon chapter recently implemented a similar program, said Segal, which led the Alachua County chapter to create their own. Following the success of the kits during their first month available, Segal said she hopes that the Alachua Audubon Society can soon offer more bird-watching kits to ACLD and continue to provide the community with resources.
Segal also said she hopes the kits can get more people interested in bird-watching, regardless of experience or age, and help the birding community grow.
“Birds are just beautiful,” Segal said. “The more I go birding, the more intrigued I am by them.”
Just like any book, these kits can be checked out at any local library branch when they are available. The check-out period lasts for 14 days, and there is a waiting list for those who wish to check out a kit at a time when none are available.
The kits have been in circulation for about one month and have been “extremely popular” according to Rachel Cook, the public relations and marketing manager for ACLD.
Cook said libraries are important resources in the communities they serve because they provide access to materials free of charge. Without financial barriers, people can discover hobbies that might otherwise remain inaccessible due to equipment costs or lack of knowledge on the subject.
“We’re excited to add these kits to our collection as another thing we can offer to the community without costs,” Cook said.
Bubba Scales, a volunteer with Alachua Audubon Society and former owner of Wild Birds Unlimited, said the cost of binoculars, which are necessary but expensive, can be a big barrier. By offering binoculars in the kits, more individuals can discover their appreciation of birds, which Scales said can be important for sparking community interest in conservation.
“The more people that understand the value of nature, the more likely you can get people involved in conservation efforts,” Scales said. “And to me, birds are an expression of the sublime beauty of nature and what needs to be protected.”
Community involvement is essential to conservation efforts, said Rachel Woods, an ornithology collection assistant for the Florida Museum of Natural History. She said research funding and program success are largely based upon community awareness, and data is often gleaned from community bird-watching events.
“Birds are a good show of our ecosystem,” Woods said. “So if we want to know how our ecosystems are doing, we should be paying attention to birds.”
Many community members are already paying attention to birds and are encouraging others to do so as well. Pratibha Singh, admissions coordinator at the University of Florida’s College of Business and a former member of the Indian Forest Service, said her love of bird-watching stems from her curiosity about their migration habits.
“Birds have even inspired inventions,” Singh wrote in an email. “No GPS, no passports, yet they are always on time and in the right place.”
Tim Hardin, another local bird-watcher and Santa Fe College wildlife ecology student, said bird-watching has helped to alleviate his PTSD and anxiety following five deployments in the U.S. Army. Hardin is currently chasing an Alachua County “birding big year,” which involves trying to break the record for most bird species seen in the county in one year and has recorded 249 different species in 2021 – only 11 species away from breaking the current record.
“More people should get into bird-watching from a health and wellness perspective,” Hardin said. “I would encourage everyone to go out and see what Gainesville has to offer.”