What’s the fastest-growing outdoor sport in Florida? Fishing? Camping?
The answer is wildlife observation, also known as "birding," which U.S. Fish and Wildlife describes as "one of the fastest-growing outdoor hobbies or pastimes." One reason? No special equipment is necessary to get started. Just your eyes and a field guide.
And now with the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail, there are nearly 500 sites, stretching 2,000 miles from Key West to Gulf Islands National Seashore.
So what are you waiting for? Get started.
Bahia Honda State Park: Explore mangrove swamp, hardwood hammocks, salt marsh and sandy beaches, either on foot, bicycle or by boat. One of the most popular state parks in the Florida Keys, Bahia Honda is home to the gray kingbird, a large-billed songbird found along the Florida coast between March and October.
Big Cypress National Preserve: This wild tract of both freshwater and mangrove swamp is one of the last refuges of the Florida panther. This is rough country, but you can bird by car. Keep an eye out for the snail kite, an endangered species which feeds exclusively on the apple snail.
Everglades National Park: The legendary River of Grass is home to dozens of endangered and threatened species. Hopefully you will see a six-inch songbird, the Black-whiskered Vireo, a common visitor during the summer months.
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge: It's home to more than 140,000 acres of coastal dunes, saltwater marshes, pine flatwoods and hardwood hammocks, plus more than 1,500 species of plants and animals. The roseate spoonbill, a bright pink bird often mistaken for a flamingo, is a frequent visitor.
Anastasia State Park: It's one of the best campgrounds in the state, so extend your adventure and spend the night. Due to the number of shore and wading birds, it's a good spot for beginners. Start early for the best results.
Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park: This is the largest remaining stretch of Florida dry prairie, which provides habitat to a suite of plants and animals found nowhere else. Look for the crested caracara, sandhill crane and endangered Florida grasshopper while driving the five-mile road into the preserve.
Honeymoon Island State Park: This barrier island located a short drive from downtown Tampa has one of the last virgin slash pine forests in Florida. The wooded nature trails are a good place to see nesting osprey. Among the shorebirds is the least tern, the smallest member of the tern family.
Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge: This 53,000-acre refuge protects one of the country’s largest undeveloped river-delta estuarine systems. By boat, canoe or kayak, you can explore offshore islands and tidal creeks while scanning the sky for swallow-tailed kites and bald eagles. If you’re lucky, you might even see a West Indian manatee or a leaping Gulf sturgeon.
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge: Established in 1931 to provide a protected rest stop for migratory birds, the refuge features 70,000 acres of tidal creeks and coastal marshes and is home to more than 300 species of birds. Year-round residents include herons, egrets and the wood stork, the legendary "ironhead" of the Florida swamps. For the past four years, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge has been involved in Operation Migration with ultralights bringing young, endangered whooping cranes to the refuge each winter.
Gulf Islands National Seashore: You can spend days wandering America’s largest national seashore. More than 80 percent of the park is underwater, perfect for wading and shore birds. This is a good place to see the gull-billed tern, who are different from other terns in that they do not dive for fish, but pluck for insects and small invertebrates.
If You Go
It doesn't take much to get started in birding – just a field guide, some sturdy shoes and a pair of binoculars.
Binoculars come in a variety of sizes and price points, but "fit" is a big factor. If the binoculars are too heavy or don't feel right in your hands, you are likely to leave them at home instead of taking them into the field. You should be able to find an entry pair for under $100.
Once you have binoculars, pick up a field guide. Peterson's A Field Guide to the Birds is an easy-to-use introductory book. And don't forget a pad and pencil so you can keep a journal.
For more information, check out www.floridabirdingtrail.com and www.myfwc.com.
Terry Tomalin is VISIT FLORIDA’s Boating and Fishing Insider and the outdoors editor for the Tampa Bay Times. He lives in St. Petersburg.