Why Bird Watch in Florida?
Florida is such a birder’s paradise because of its mild climate and diverse habitats. The state is also situated between tropical and temperate regions and it has two important migratory corridors used by Caribbean birds and birds from as far away as the Canadian Prairies. Some of the many birds that you will see are the snail kite, the beautiful roseate spoonbill, limpkin, swallow-tailed kite, red-cockaded woodpeckers, smooth-billed ani, the Florida burrowing owl, and the endangered Florida scrub jay. So you can see why my husband and I like to travel there for birding. There are many birding hotspots in Florida to go to. We follow the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail (GFBWT) which provides many good birding spots. Every birder has his/her favorite locations to go including my husband and I. I am giving you our Top 10 favorites. But before I do let me explain what The Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail is.
The Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail
The Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail is a program of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in which they promote birdwatching, environmental education, and ecotourism. It has a network of 510 premier wildlife viewing sites over a 2000 mile stretch across the state and is divided into four sections: the Panhandle, West Florida, Eastern Florida, and South Florida.
Our Top 10 Birding Spots happen to be in South Florida which is our favorite part of Florida to visit. Each place listed has a link that will take you to a site that provides location and additional information:
The Dry Tortugas is about 70 miles (112.9 km) west of Key West and is a cluster of seven islands which is composed of coral reefs and sand. Along with the surrounding shoals and waters, they make up the Dry Tortugas National Park. This beautiful remote area is known for its famous bird and marine life (over 300 species of birds have been spotted there) and its legends of pirates and sunken gold. Fort Jefferson is one of the largest coastal forts ever built and is its central feature. Just to give you a little history it was built to protect one of the most strategic deep water anchorages in North America. By fortifying this spacious harbor, the United States maintained an important “advance post” for ships patrolling the Gulf of Mexico and the Straits of Florida. Nestled within the islands and shoals that make up the Dry Tortugas, the harbor offered ships the chance to resupply, refit, or seek refuge from storms.
There are two ways to get there either by ferry or by sea plane. The sea plane holds about 6 to 8 people at $325 per person, and the ferry which is a fast moving catamaran carries 150 people at about $179 per person. Once you get there you can bird, swim, explore, and snorkel. We have taken both but I highly recommend taking the sea plane if you can afford it. You get there two hours earlier than the ferry plus traveling 70 miles in a plane is much better than 70 miles on a boat (I’m thinking sea sickness). Also you get there 2 hours earlier than the ferry which gives you more time to spend there.
Spring is definitely the best time to go where you can easily see 70 or species of birds in a single day. However, any season offers the chance to see something unique at the beautiful place. Some of the birds that you can see there are: Roseate and Bridled Terns, Masked and Brown Boobies, Red-Necked Phalarope, Red-Footed Boobie, Double-Crested Cormorants, Brown Pelicans, Frigate Birds, the Caribbean Short-Eared Owl, White-Tailed Tropicbird, Shiny Cowbird and the Golden Warbler. During spring and fall migrations, Caribbean short eared owls, shiny cow birds, warblers, and thrushes, grosbeaks, and cuckoos are seen on Garden Key where the fort was constructed. In the Summertime you can look for white tailed tropic birds and in the Fall you can see many hawks such as the sharp shinned.
#2 The Florida Everglades
Sometimes called the “River of Grass,” the Florida Everglades is one of the most extensive, wetland ecosystems in the world and one of the top 10 birding locations in the world . The Everglades is situated within the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways. It is nearly 50 miles wide and more than 100 miles long and home to a multitude of plants, animals, and birds—both resident and migratory—that live in some habitats not found anywhere else on the North American continent. The Everglades is primarily a fresh-water ecosystem that covers almost 485,000 acres of the salty Florida Bay and Gulf of Mexico. Waters from Okeechobee and many other interconnected rivers, lakes, streams, sloughs , wet prairies, and wetlands from Orlando and regions farther north, and extending to the south of Florida Bay, flow into the Everglades. This combination of freshwater and salt-water systems creates the unique environment that formed the Everglades.
There have been as many as 350 bird species spotted in the Florida Everglades. The best birding season is from December to March and when the mosquitoes are at their least bothersome. You can see an amazing array of migratory birds including the American oystercatcher, avocet, black skimmers, the long and short billed curlew, a variety of ducks, dunlin, gulls, hawks, marbled godwits, peregrine falcon, plovers, northern harriers, red knots, ruddy turnstones, sandpipers, swallow-tailed kites, terns, willets, whimbrels and much more.
#3 Lake Okeechobee Ridge
Lake Okeechobee is the historical headwaters of the Everglades which once covered almost 11,000 square miles of South Florida. It is north of the Everglades National Park and consists of freshwater marsh, cattail marsh, and sawgrass marsh, willow heads, and mudflats. Here you can find Limpkins and Bitterns, Sora, Caracara and Purple Gallinue, as well as many other marsh/wading birds that ply the shallow waters surrounding the lake searching for food. You can also see warblers, vireos, the northern parula and the painted bunting. Here, you can take a boating tour with a knowledgeable birder to see the birds up close and personal. Or you can take the auto tour.
#4 Siesta Beach
This is listed as one of the 10 beaches in the world. Over 180 species of birds have been recorded here which includes shorebirds such as Willets, Dunlin and Ruddy Turnstone. Piping Plovers may be present during the winter months and both Snowy and Wilson’s have been spotted. Migratory shorebirds such as Whimbrel, White-rumped Sandpiper and Wilson’s Phalarope have also been recorded. You can also see Least Terns, Brown Pelicans, Ospreys, Reddish Egret and occasionally the Roseate Spoonbill. Others birds seen have been Red-necked Phalarope, Razorbill, Sabine’s Gull, Bridled Tern, Elegant Tern, Saltmarsh Sparrow (winter) and Gray Kingbirds (summer). The best birding times are in the early morning or later in the evening when it is quiet and less crowded.
#5 J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge
J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge is located on Sanibel Island which is a great place to go to the beach, collect shells, and yes, check out all the species of birds there. It is located along the Gulf of Mexico, just a short drive from Fort Myers and has many hotels, places to eat, shop etc. The refuge is the most popular place on the island and is home to over 245 species of birds both migratory and residential. Here you will see herons, Reddish Egret, White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbills, American White Pelican, Brown Pelican, Black Skimmers, Least Tern, Magnificent Frigatebirds, Plover, Black-necked Stilt, Red Knots, Semipalmated Plover, and Willets. You can also see American Kestrel, Eagles, Eastern Screech Owl, Osprey, Red-shoulderd Hawks, song birds, various species of ducks, Sora, Clapper Rail, and Common Gallinule.
The best time to visit is spring and fall but you can still see quite a few of the residential birds in summertime too. If you visit in the winter you should plan your bird watching drive on days when low tide is fairly early in the morning. When the tide is low, fish concentrate in shallow pools, making it easy for wading birds such as the herons, egrets, spoonbill, and ibis to capture prey and create perfect conditions for bird watching.
#6 Celery Fields
The Celery Fields is owned by Sarasota County and is a 360+ acre site. Wetlands restoration of 100 acres is now complete at the Celery Fields with more than 200,000 aquatic plants and trees that have been planted, and two boardwalks that have been installed, one off Palmer Blvd and the other off Raymond Road which borders the southeastern cell. It will has walking and biking trails, fishing, kayaking, and wildlife viewing plus a nature center.
Mainly consisting of open marshlands, deep ponds, shallow pools, and canals, the Celery Fields are edged by oaks, willows, and pines on the eastern and southern boundaries. It is a food and habitat source to a wide variety of birds and other wildlife. Here you can see Northern Bobwhites and Tree Swallows among the recently planted palm, oak, and cedar trees and scan the ponds for Osprey, Roseate Spoonbills, and, in winter, up to 20 duck species. You can also see egrets, herons, Sandhill Cranes, wrens, rails, and sparrows by at the ponds and marshes. Every morning from 8:30 to 10:30, from November through April, a naturalist equipped with a spotting scope is available at the end of each boardwalk.
#7 Blind Beach Pass
This is a mile of relatively unvisited Gulf shore and is great for uninterrupted beach birding located . Until recently, Blind Pass was a naturally occurring channel of water that separated the two islands of Sanibel and Captiva Islands. This is where the bay connects with the gulf. The common shoreline species of birds that you can see are Spotted Sandpiper, Willet, Dunlin and Black-bellied Plover. Across the street is a short trail through mangrove swamp that leads to a lagoon off of Lemon Bay Aquatic Preserve. You can scan the mudflats at low tide for more shorebirds and watch the mangrove edges for wading birds, including reddish egret. You can also launch a canoe or kayak from the small ramp and spend some time floating the lagoon and bay seeing the birds more close-up.
#8 Oscar Scherer State Park
This park has over 1381 acres with a large part of it being of scrubby flatwoods. It is one of the best places in southwest Florida to view scrub jays. In fact, when my husband, my son, and I were there we came across a group of scrub jays in the woods while hiking. We had spoken to the wildlife manager earlier who said that if we placed a peanut in our hand one would fly in to get it. Sure enough a scrub jay came flying in to retrieve a peanut from my son’s hand. Very cool!
Of course before the scrub jay landed on Eric’s (my son) hand it landed on my husband’s cap!
You can also see Mississippi Kites, Red-shouldered hawks, Great Horned Owls, Eastern Whip-poor-wills, Red-bellied and Pileated Woodpeckers, Yellow-throated Warblers, Northern Cardinals, and many other birds there.
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is located 30 minutes east of Naples. Corkscrew is home to a wide diversity of birds including the Wood Stork Bald Eagle, Painting Buntings, and Black-bellied Whistling Duck. Some are year-round residents while others pass through during migration time. Others are seasonal and come for just the winter or spring. There is a 2.5 mile boardwalk trail that you can walk along to view the birds.
Corkscrew Swamp is also home to hundreds of alligators, otters, white-tailed deer, and red-bellied turtles. So you will find nature at its best.
#10 Fred C. Babcock – C Webb Wildlife Management Area
This is a 79,000-acre wilderness between Port Charlotte and Fort Myers, Florida. The habitat consists primarily of pine-palmetto flatwoods with interspersed ponds throughout. You can drive along the 7 mile asphalt roads which offers good wildlife viewing. There are also several places to walk.
This is a great place to see Brown-headed Nuthatch, Bachman’s Sparrow, and the Red-cockaded Woodpecker.
These are my husband’s and my favorite places to go in South Florida where we prefer to go birding. However, The Florida Birding Trail covers four different sections of Florida which are the Panhandle, West Florida, Eastern Florida, and South Florida. Every birder has their own preference and with 510 premier wildlife viewing sites over a 2000 mile stretch across the state, you can definitely find a good birding spot that you will like.
When we travel to Florida, our preferred places to stay are in or around Siesta Key, various places near Fort Myers, and Sanibel Island. These are such beautiful areas you will not go wrong. You can check places out on Booking.Com.
If you would like to make a comment about this post please feel free below. I would love to hear from you.
Since I recently retired to Florida, I’ve really gotten into bird watching.
I want to go to many of these places because they seem awesome. But out them all Siesta Keys is the place I really want to go to.
I’m talking to my wife about visiting these places and it will be a very rewarding experience for us.
We have been to Lake Okeechobee but that’s the only one. Thanks for the tips on places to bird watch!
Rob, thanks for your comment. Yeah, I kind of lean towards Siesta Key myself as it is such a beautiful area. If you ever get a chance you should try the Dry Tortugas. It is such an amazing experience you wouldn’t believe. Fort Jefferson was also used as a prison and is where Dr. Samuel Mudd (the person who aided John Wilkes Booth in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln) was imprisoned. If you like history at all. Just an FYI.