What a hoot, so to speak, to be asked to travel and write about Florida's beautiful birds. Following The Great Florida Birding Trail led me to a series of unforgettable encounters and an eye-opening education. Previously, the only bird watching I had done was in my own backyard in southwest Florida. But I didn't know what I was looking at, albeit enjoying. After having visited just a few Trail sites, I now proudly identify my pileated woodpeckers, black-bellied whistling ducks, red-shouldered hawks, great egrets and great blue herons, white ibises, limpkins, wood storks, roseate spoonbills and more.
One of the wonderful aspects of The Great Florida Birding Trail is that even a novice can't help but be enriched by birding its carefully chosen sites. The bonus is being immersed in nature, learning about Florida's diverse habitats and experiencing local flavor as well as wildlife. The 2,000-mile driving tour includes more than 500 birding locations, from beautiful beaches to lost-in-time wetlands and stunning state parks.
The Trail is a program of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, supported in part by the Florida Department of Transportation and the Wildlife Foundation of Florida. It divides the state into four sections: East, West, South and Panhandle. Some sites are designed for drive-by viewing, others encourage parking your car and hiking, boating or bicycling.
I'm told by old friend and Audubon activist, Jeanne Dubi, that I've (unwittingly) transitioned from a novice to an intermediate birder. Here's how it happened.
See you later, alligator? Not in the case of Gatorland, a seemingly unlikely, yet outstanding Birding Trail site in Orlando. The giant creatures are not shy about making their presence known, in the thousands, at Gatorland's bird rookery. Most people think of the park as just a fun, family attraction, with snake and alligator shows, a petting zoo and exotic birds. But it's the outstanding bird watching opportunities at its ten-acre sanctuary that put it on the Trail's map.
One of Florida's oldest theme parks, Gatorland first attracted its thousands of birds in the early 1990s, when brush was cleared for the alligators and boardwalks were built for visitors. Shortly after, nests started appearing and multiplied exponentially each year. Birds build them just feet above the boardwalks, knowing the reptiles below will protect them by eating natural predators such as raccoons, snakes and bobcats. The only threats are hawks and herons, and of course the alligators, should a fledgling fall in the water while learning to fly, though occasionally a gator will bump a tree to knock down a bird or nest. All's fair in nature - wading birds eat baby alligators just as willingly.
No need for binoculars or even a telephoto lens here. These birds are used to people and perch in trees and shrubs often at eye level. They aren't afraid of humans and even appear to pose, an unlikely occurrence in the wild. The sanctuary hosts nine different species of nesting wading birds, including black-crowned night-herons, great egrets and white ibises, and 13 species of roosting birds, plus migratory species here in fall and early spring. Signs along the boardwalk make identification a snap, as they include photos as well as written descriptions. I had no idea how easy birding here would be when I requested a guide.
Entertainment Director Mike Hileman led my husband and me along the boardwalk, pointing out the cypress trees that host nesting cormorants, anhingas and great blue herons, practically within arms' reach. We wound through a jungle of elderberries, wax myrtles, willows, palmettos and palm trees. Many of them looked as if the tops had been chopped off with a giant hedge-trimmer. Mike told us the birds trim them every March to accommodate their nests.
"The sanctuary is like a flower - it grows and wilts and comes back next year, every year," he explained. "An annual pass gives you the opportunity to see the process."
He pointed out a moorhen in the brush, then led us up the observation tower where cattle egrets flew just ten feet in front of us. The three-story, wooden structure was dotted in white: Cattle egret and snowy egret fledglings begin their lives in the 5,000 nests that appear here annually. Quietly taking in the hundreds of birds before us and alligators below us, we were startled by a sudden cacophony of squawks. The birds were in a tizzy, fighting, yelling and fluttering.
Mealtime had begun, and mom and dad had just returned with the first course, probably dragonflies and other insects they had recently ingested. (Talk about strained baby food.) The parents struggled to deposit the regurgitated food directly into their babies' beaks, while the chicks violently fought amongst themselves to be first in line. Then, it was quiet again. The parents left to find more food and would return to repeat the process, hunting and feeding all day and sleeping all night, no doubt exhausted.
We were stunned by this exciting display, clicking constantly to capture it on film. Mike explained that we weren't here at the best time of year. To see and/or photograph thousands of birds all day long, come February through July. Otherwise you'll still see them all day, but "only" in the hundreds, more in early morning and at dusk. I can't imagine what that must be like. Seeing them in the hundreds, up close and personal, was spectacular.
Now this is birding in the wild - "wild" being the operative word. Caladesi Island near the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area is one of the few remaining undeveloped barrier islands in Florida. It is savage beauty, serenity and seclusion. It is also home to sea turtles, gopher tortoises and more than 100 species of resident birds.
A ferry takes visitors from Honeymoon Island to Caladesi, but the birds don't wait until you get there to greet you. Honeymoon Island is also a Trail site; the two islands were one until a storm split them in two, dividing them by a body of water aptly named Hurricane Pass. Caladesi is more remote, accessible only by boat and therefore has a fraction of the visitation. Except, of course, for the birds.
Brown pelicans perched on pilings awaited my husband and me as we boarded the boat; laughing gulls flew overhead and osprey, aptly nicknamed "fish hawks" munched on mullet as we glided by. An entertaining 20-minute ride landed us at Caladesi's boat dock right in front of the building that houses the Ranger Station, café and gift shop.
We started our tour along the shore, with the variety of birds so numerous it would seem impossible to identify them all. But our able guide, ranger Steve Collier, had no problem. Laughing gulls, snowy egrets, brown pelicans, little blue herons and willets congregated in one spot. We saw dozens of American oystercatchers. These pretty black and white birds nest on the beach here in March and April; their eggs blend completely with the sand.
Royal terns and least terns waddled at the water's edge. A royal tern, Steve explained, looks like a larger least tern but has an orange beak and can be seen here all year. Both breed from April through August. Snowy and Wilson's plovers are also plentiful; Steve helped us tell the difference by pointing out the smaller snowy plover is a little whiter. (Hmmm, "snowy." Why didn't we think of that?!)
The two-and-a-half-mile stretch of beach looked like a postcard, with sand dunes, sea oats and grasses. Cabbage palms thrive in this environment, as do sea grapes, palmettos and even red mangroves. Prickly pear cactus flourish and wildflowers bloom along the nature trail, which winds through forests of towering oaks and pines further inland. It's here that songbirds like Magnolia Warblers and Northern Orioles rest and refuel on their seasonal overwater migrations, drawing birders in October and April to witness the spectacle.
We came upon two sea turtle nests, which were blocked off for protection, as were the birds' nesting and resting areas. The delicate turtle nests fall prey here to armadillos and raccoons. Speaking of threats, Steve warned us to watch out for Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes. They grow from four to eight feet in length, and have a striking distance of six feet.
"If you see one, stay still, then back away very slowly," he advised. He reassured us that no one has been bitten here. Since they are rare and reclusive, I asked if he'd ever actually seen one. He quickly responded, "Not today!"
We carefully continued our trek and saw many wading birds, including reddish, great and snowy egrets. The reddish egret has a rosy head, neck and breast, and appears to dance as it chases its prey in the shallows. The great egret looks like a snowy, but has black feet and a yellow bill, while the smaller snowy has hard-to-miss bright yellow feet and a black bill. We even saw the intriguing black skimmer, a gull-like bird that keeps its long orange beak open to catch fish as it skims along the water. The ruddy turnstone and yellow-crowned night heron made cameo appearances.
The tour stopped but the birds didn't. On the ferry back we viewed roseate spoonbills, white ibises and green-backed herons, in addition to more of the species we had already encountered. In just a half-day's excursion to this naturalist's wonderland, my new birding "life list" had tripled.
At the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, we chose to bird by boat, on a tour with the Tarpon Bay Explorers. They provide guided walking, tram, kayak/canoe and boat tours; ours began at the Touch Tank. Captain Bill Burch showed us starfish, seahorses, mating crabs and other sea creatures before we boarded the pontoon boat for an education on the birds of Tarpon Bay.
We glided through the bay at no more than three knots, which provided ample opportunity to view not only birds, but dolphin and manatees as well. We learned that manatees flourish in these food-rich, protected waters, growing to ten feet long and weighing up to 1,200 pounds. They spend six to eight hours a day munching on sea grasses and eat about 150 pounds worth. Fortunately, for our viewing pleasure, they were more interested in keeping us company than chowing down. The dolphins? They thrive in these fish-fertile waters where the water is so shallow the fish can't escape being dinner.
We passed some double-crested cormorants resting on markers. These amazing birds can dive to 100 feet and stay underwater for more than a minute. The cormorant is one of two types of diving birds here; the other is the anhinga, nicknamed "the snake bird." No wonder: The enigmatic creature swims with its body submerged, revealing only its head and long snake-like neck above water.
Brown pelicans were everywhere, and a cluster of laughing gulls socialized on an oyster bar, a mound of crustaceans having accumulated for generations. There were a few least terns visiting from Brazil. Our captain explained that this was a special sighting, as this species is threatened in Florida due to habitat loss.
Red mangrove islands fringe the bay, and make ideal nesting spots for birds. The mangroves grow in water, not on land, so rodents and other natural predators are not an issue. Much like Gatorland, the only threats to bird nests here are hawks and eagles. Captain Bill informed us that in addition to migratory species, there are about 1,500 resident birds here, including the bald eagle, reddish egret, blue heron, yellow-crowned night heron, white ibis, red-shouldered hawk, snowy egret and roseate spoonbill. As we passed a rookery with brown pelican chicks, he commented, "They're cute as can be, but seem to spend a lot of time just standing around trying to figure out what they should be doing." Kids today.
We saw tri-colored herons, cormorant and reddish egret chicks and ospreys with fish. Rare mangrove cuckoos and black-whiskered vireos breed in this area in warm weather, and in cooler months, many of North America's shorebirds such as American avocets winter here, offering different birds at every turn, in every season.
After the tour, we drove to the refuge's visitor center, an educational and entertaining collection of all things related to the delicate balance of this unique habitat, offering an impressive array of displays and films, and a shop chock-full of books about birds and wildlife as well as wildlife-themed gifts. We had planned to take the world-renowned self-guided driving tour, and if we had time, one of the two tram tours. But, we were already reeling from sensory overload. Next time, we'll arrive very early and leave as late as possible, and come prepared for a panoply of possibilities.
THE PANHANDLE SECTION: A GREAT FLORIDA BIRDING TRAIL GATEWAY
What is a Gateway? Gateways are birding sites that provide more extensive Trail-related resources, offer loaner optics and act as hubs for regional birding information. There are currently nine designated throughout the state.
The Lighthouse Unit of St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is one of the two Panhandle Gateways for the Great Florida Birding Trail, and a definite must-see. St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1931 to provide a wintering habitat for migratory waterfowl and is one of the oldest in the National Wildlife Refuge System. Encompassing 70,000 acres spread out along the Gulf coast of northwest Florida, it includes coastal marshes, islands, tidal creeks and estuaries of seven north Florida rivers. It hosts a diverse community of flora and fauna, has a rich cultural past and is home to the St. Marks Lighthouse, which was built in 1831 and is still in use today. Birding here is outstanding year 'round, and particularly good from October to February.
Before you begin, stop briefly at the visitor center for a map and to check the sightings log. The adjacent pond and trail can be good in winter for white-throated sparrows, belted kingfishers, eastern phoebes and more. From north to south along the main road, the helicopter pad accessed from the primitive hiking trails is good for wintering sparrows such as Henslow's. The East River Pool yields views of waterfowl and shorebirds when water levels are low. Refuge pools host wintering shovelers, coots, teal, bald eagles, pintails and snow geese in winter, as well as year-round bald eagles, sora, purple gallinule and wading birds. Find migrant songbirds like yellow-billed cuckoos and indigo buntings along forest edges on the lower Pond Trail. The squeaky-toy call of brown-headed nuthatches is common in the pines here, so listen as well as look!
The road ends at the historic lighthouse. Check the oaks during migration for songbirds like the hooded warbler and orchard oriole; the deeper ponds and the bay host wintering waterfowl like redheads and canvasbacks. Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrows, marsh wrens and least bitterns call from the salt marsh in spring, and bufflehead, common loons and horned grebes winter in the Apalachee Bay Gulf surf. Willets, brown pelicans and laughing gulls loaf on pilings and offshore oyster bars.
As if that's not enough, depending on when you visit, you may catch a glimpse of the Florida black bear, white-tailed deer, river otters, alligators and diverse butterflies, including the migratory monarch late October through November. This extraordinary wildlife refuge and important Gateway is located just east of the quaint town of St. Marks, about 25 miles south of Tallahassee.
Printed Birding Trail guides are free and detail what birds to look for at each site, when to visit and what kind of an experience each offers. Find the guides at any number of nature centers throughout the state or contact the Great Florida Birding Trail.
Here's a sampling of what you can expect to see at other sites throughout the state:
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Titusville: Florida scrub-jays, roseate spoonbills, wintering shorebirds and ducks.
Ft. Clinch State Park, Fernandina Beach: Purple sandpipers and painted buntings, which are seasonal.
Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, Micanopy: Sandhill cranes, black-bellied whistling ducks, crowned and white-throated sparrows and migratory songbirds.
Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, Homosassa Springs: Wild migratory songbirds.
Myakka River State Park, Sarasota: Herons, glossy and white ibises, eagles, ospreys, meadowlarks and bobwhites.
Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges, Florida Keys: Spectacular raptor migration in October as well as the white-crowned pigeon, a Keys' specialty during the spring and summer.
Ochlockonee River State Park, Sopchoppy: Pine warblers, red-cockaded woodpeckers and brown-headed nuthatches.
Henderson Beach State Park, Destin: Snowy plovers, least terns, American oystercatchers and migratory songbirds.
- Bring binoculars, a field guide and a checklist to keep track of birds you spot.
- Take along lots of water, sunscreen and insect repellent.
- Make reservations in advance for "by appointment only" sites.
- Check seasonality of the site; are you visiting at the right time of the year?
- Keep your distance. Don't disturb the birds, especially if they are nesting. Spooking the parents can harm both eggs and fledglings.
- Sit or crouch so you appear smaller.
- Keep movements slow and steady.
- Walk around groups of birds on the beach rather than forcing them to fly.
- Stay on existing trails so as not to trample fragile habitat.
- Respect fellow birders.