Welcome to a preview of the Great Florida Birding Trail, featuring birding opportunities in northeast Florida. Every year, thousands of people from all corners of the globe come to Florida just to see and enjoy one of the nation's largest variety of bird species. A good number of these can be found along a 240-mile stretch along the eastern coast, from Fort Clinch State Park, just below the Georgia border, to Vero Beach. However you choose to explore this tour, we hope you'll enjoy your encounters with some of Florida's remarkable birds!
The trail starts at the northeast tip of Florida at Fort Clinch State Park, located just outside Fernandina Beach, about 25 miles north of Jacksonville. To get there from I-95, take Exit 129 (Yulee) to State Road A1A and go east for 15 miles. As you enter the park, pick up a bird list and a park map at the ranger station. The ruins of Fort Clinch, built just before the Civil War, anchor the tip of Amelia Island, Florida's northernmost Atlantic barrier island. In winter, purple sandpipers can be found. Scan the shoreline for laughing, ring-billed herring and great black-backed gulls, royal terns and other shorebirds. Migratory warblers, mourning doves and typical woodland birds can be seen along both loops of the Willow Pond Nature Trail. In the spring and summer, stay alert for glimpses of the brilliantly plumaged painted bunting. Fort Clinch State Park, 2601 Atlantic Avenue, Fernandina Beach, FL 32034; Call 904-277-7274.
One of the most advantageous ways of viewing birds on the inland salt marshes of A1A is by canoe or kayak. Canoes can be rented by the hour or the day at Little Talbot Island State Park, which is eight miles south of Fernandina Beach on A1A. Check the tide schedule; you don't want to get stuck in the marshes when the tide goes out. Around 200 species of birds make their homes along the waterways. Little Talbot State Park, 12157 Heckscher Drive, Jacksonville, FL 32226; Call 904-251-2320.
Day two begins at Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve, about 15 miles south of Jacksonville at State Road 202, and 10 miles north of St. Augustine on A1A. This park protects 9,800 acres of coastal barrier beach, coastal hammock, pine flatwoods, a lake, ponds and marsh. The wildlife management area, where seasonal waterfowl hunts are held, includes Guana Lake and the central and northern marshes and interior upland sections of the tract.
The state park occupies the tip of the Guana peninsula and a narrow strip of barrier beach on both sides of State Road A1A. Scan offshore areas for sea ducks, common loons and northern gannets in the winter months. Or head to the north end of Guana Lake to view black-necked stilts, yellowlegs, dowitchers and other shorebirds when water levels are low.
Continue south on A1A to the state park entrance at the south end of Guana Lake. Pick up a map at the park headquarters and park at the dam. Look for wading birds and waterfowl such as ducks, American coots, common moorhens and pied-billed grebes. Walking and biking trails lead to interior ponds such as the Big Savannah Pond interpretive center and boardwalk, or the observation tower at Capo Creek, where sightings of wood storks, roseate spoonbills, white and glossy ibis, egrets, herons and other wading birds are common from May through September. The tower is also good for observing swallow-tailed kites in the summer and migrating hawks and falcons particularly during April and October. This is the best place in northeast Florida to see peregrine falcons. Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve, 505 Guana River Road, Ponte Vedra Beach, FL 32082; Call 904-823-4500.
From Ponte Vedra Beach, your next stop is about three hours down the coast. Get back on I-95 and head south for about 65 miles to Fellsmere, Exit 69. Go east two miles on County Road 512 to the light at County Road 510. Take County Road 510 until it reaches A1A, approximately six miles. Turn left on A1A north and go seven miles to the entrance of Sebastian Inlet State Recreation Area. Check exposed mudflats in the Indian River on both sides of the inlet for wading birds such as great blue, little blue and tri-colored herons and great and snowy egrets. Brown pelicans and double-crested cormorants loaf on the jetty or exposed mudflats, along with royal terns and ring-billed and laughing gulls. Willets, sanderlings and dunlins feed along the beach; in fall and winter, shorebird populations increase and include black-bellied plovers and ruddy turnstones. Sebastian Inlet is located on both sides of the bridge crossing the Indian River. Sebastian Inlet State Recreation Area, 9700 South A1A, Melbourne Beach, FL 32951; Call 321-984-4852.
For more information on the Great Florida Birding Trail, contact The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, 620 South Meridian St., Tallahassee, FL 32399. Call 850-922-0664.