How to Tour the Great Florida Birding Trail's Northwest Section
The Great Florida Birding Trail (GFBT) is a 2,000-mile, self-guided trail divided into four distinct geographical locations throughout Florida.
The following four-day tour highlights several of Florida's premier birding sites in the Northwest portion of the state, beginning in the state's capital, Tallahassee.
From Tallahassee you'll travel south to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, west to Apalachicola, north to Marianna, and then wind up the tour in the Pensacola Bay area. Visitors entering the state from the west may want to do this tour in reverse.
For the birder and the general nature enthusiast alike, these sites offer some of the best environments in the state to enjoy nature.
Start your adventure at one of Florida's most famous birding sites, the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, (850) 925-6121. From Tallahassee take S.R. 363 (Woodville Hwy.) south to S.R. 267, four miles south of Woodville, turn left and take S.R. 267 until it dead ends at U.S. 98 (approximately four miles). Turn left at U.S. 98, cross the St. Marks River and make the next right onto C.R. 59. Pick up a map and bird list at the visitor center about two miles ahead.
Mounds Pool Nature Trail, a few minutes south of the visitor center, will take you on a short hike to an impounded pool where you can find shorebirds and waterfowl. Land birds here include Carolina wrens, brown-headed nuthatches and pine warblers. Next, travel approximately six miles farther south to the St. Marks Lighthouse. Climb the observation tower for a great view of the surrounding marshes and check the sky for raptors such as osprey, northern harriers and bald eagles. Enjoy several species of ducks during the cooler months of the year and with luck, you may find sharp-tailed or seaside sparrows in the salt marshes around the lighthouse. While the sharp-tailed sparrows are only winter visitors, seaside sparrows nest here and may be seen singing in the marshes.
Your next stop will be at Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park, (850) 224-5950, approximately 10 miles northwest of the refuge. From C.R. 59, turn left (west) onto U.S. 98 and cross the bridge; veer right onto C.R. 267. After four miles, you will cross S.R. 363. The park entrance is five miles ahead on the left. Wakulla Springs is one of the largest and deepest freshwater springs in the world, flowing from an underground river at a rate of over 400,000 crystal clear gallons per minute. The best way to experience the springs and birds is on the 30 minute "Jungle Cruise" boat ride. Winter will often find ducks feeding in the river, while in summer, beautiful purple gallinules sometimes raise young in the lily pads. Watch for Florida specialties such as anhinga and limpkin. In the spring along the river, you will hear northern parula and yellow-throated warblers, Carolina wrens and swamp sparrows.
After a fun-filled day at Wakulla Springs, head west on U.S. 98 to Apalachicola (62 miles) to get a good night's sleep before another big day tomorrow.
Begin the day early at St. George Island State Park, (850) 927-2111, located on the east end of St. George Island. Head east on U.S. 98 from Apalachicola for about five miles to S.R. G1A (Island Dr.). Turn right (south) and travel over the bridge to the island. In summer, least terns, American oystercatchers and Wilson's plovers nest on the old causeway (visible on your left as you cross the bridge), while gray kingbirds nest on the island. To reach the state park, turn left on Gulf Beach Drive. Be sure to check the beach for shorebirds like snowy plovers, gulls and terns. In the winter, scan the water for loons and sea ducks such as scoters, and look for northern gannets diving into the water for fish. Don't neglect the wooded parts of the park where you may find songbirds in any promising-looking patch of woods, especially during migration. A productive spot for migrants like merlins, yellow-billed cuckoos and scarlet tanagers is the Youth Camp, just inside the park. Possible winter vagrants from the west include the western kingbird and scissor-tailed flycatcher.
Say good-bye to the beautiful beaches and take U.S. 98 east for five miles. Turn left (north) on S.R. 65 towards Sumatra (approximately 25 miles) for a visit to the Apalachicola National Forest, (850) 643-2282, Florida's largest National Forest. Comprised of 564,961 acres, the Apalachicola National Forest was established in 1936 and hosts the largest red-cockaded woodpecker population in the world. From S.R. 65, turn left towards Wright Lake Recreation Area and take the first forest road on the right. Look and listen for these rare birds in areas with trees marked with bands of white paint. Keep your ears open for other pine woods specialties, the elusive Bachman's sparrow and the tiny brown-headed nuthatch, best located by sound.
Next stop is Torreya State Park, (850) 643-2674, located north of Bristol. From Sumatra, head north on S.R. 65 for about 30 miles, turn left (west) on Hwy. 20 and then north on C.R. 1641/271 (which joins C.R. 270) for approximately 10 miles to the entrance of the park. The trails in the park resemble ones in the Appalachian Mountains, more so than the semitropical trails found throughout the rest of Florida. The River Bluff Loop Trail, a loop of about seven miles, traverses ravines, streams and bluffs which rise over 150 feet above the Apalachicola River. Logan's Bluff towers to about 300 feet. In winter. Check for northern specialties like dark-eyed junco and fox sparrow. In summer, look for Kentucky and hooded warblers and Louisiana waterthrush.
To get to I-10 from Torreya, go east on C.R. 271 for two miles and turn left (north) onto C.R. 270. Take C.R. 270 approximately 10 miles and turn left (north) onto C.R. 270A to I-10. Once on I-10, drive west for about half an hour to Marianna. When you cross over the Apalachicola River you will be in the Central Time Zone.
Three miles north of Marianna on C.R. 166, start your day at the forest, which is home to one of Florida's most famous geological sites, Florida Caverns State Park, (850) 482-9598. Take a guided tour of the cave and then explore the forest on your own where you'll find upland pine forest, mixed hardwood forest and swamp. The hiking trails transect all of these forest types and allow ample opportunity for birding. This is one of the more northern sites in the state so in the winter be on the lookout for birds like winter wren, rusty blackbird, fox sparrow and dark-eyed junco more common further north. In spring and summer, keep an eye to the sky for swallow-tailed and Mississippi kites and broad-winged hawks.
Head two hours west to your next adventure, Blackwater River State Park, (850) 983-5363. Stop for lunch in Crestview, 60 miles west of Marianna just off I-10, for some local flavor. From Crestview, head about 25 miles west on S.R. 90 to Harold, a small settlement on the highway. In Harold, turn right (north) on Deaton Bridge Rd. and drive about three miles to the park entrance on your right. The park's best birding trails are the Lower Trail, the short Campground Trail, and the Chain of Lakes Trail. Keep in mind that after heavy rains or in times of high water these trails can be wet and muddy. Breeding birds along these trails include yellow-billed cuckoo, hairy woodpecker, broad-winged and red-shouldered hawks, wood thrush and prothonotary warblers; upland areas hold Bachman's sparrows, brown-headed nuthatches, and pine warblers. On warm-weather weekends, the park can fill with people swimming, canoeing or picnicking, so it's good to arrive early or on a weekday, or bring your bathing suit and join the fun!
If you have time, you may want to visit the Blackwater Fisheries Research and Development Center, (850) 957-6177, to check the ponds for shorebirds like spotted sandpipers in migration and ducks in winter; and the surrounding woods for songbirds including Bachman's sparrows. From Blackwater River State Park, continue north on Deaton Bridge Rd. for 1.5 miles to Indian Ford Rd. Turn right, and follow the road east (it becomes Bob Pitts Rd. almost immediately, and then Bryant Bridge Rd. 3.5 miles ahead). About one mile after the merge with Bryant Bridge Rd., turn left (north) on Fish Hatchery Rd., and drive to the end of the road. Park in front of the buildings and walk to the ponds northwest of the office. You may also want to stop in at the center and take a look at the interesting information available about freshwater fish in Florida.
Continue south on S.R. 191 and hop back on I-10 towards Pensacola to end this day's tour.
Start early with shorebirds or migrants at Gulf Islands National Seashore, (850) 934-2600, at Fort Pickens. From Pensacola, drive south on U.S. 98 crossing the bridge to Gulf Breeze and follow S.R. 399 across the bridge to the Pensacola beaches. Once you're on Santa Rosa Island, turn right (west) and follow S.R. 399 to the National Seashore entrance at the end. In spring and fall, the area around the fort is famous for migrants such as Mississippi kites and broad-winged hawks. Check wooded areas for land birds such as warblers, tanagers and thrushes. Land bird activity often picks up later in the day, so reserve early morning hours to check the beaches for shorebirds like snowy and piping plovers. In spring and summer, listen for pine warblers and other resident songbirds in the pinewoods, and watch for beachgoers like black terns and reddish egrets. Battery Worth and its accompanying short trail offer a marsh with potential for Swainson's warblers in spring and summer, and ditches hosting either species of waterthrush during migration. During spring migration, search for bobolinks and flycatchers in grassy areas near the fort. In summer, least bitterns may nest in the canals by the fort and gray kingbirds frequent power lines.
Next stop, Big Lagoon State Park, (850) 492-1595, a GFBT gateway site. From Pensacola, drive southwest on Gulf Beach Hwy. (S.R. 297) for about 10 miles to the park on the left (south). As a gateway site, Big Lagoon has information on birding trail sites around the state. Try the Cookie Trail through the salt marsh and slash pine for herons, egrets, waterfowl and songbirds. Land birds along the trail include common nighthawks, brown-headed nuthatches and brown thrashers. Don't miss the great view from the observation tower at the East Beach area, good for wintering horned grebe, lesser scaup, bufflehead and occasional goldeneye in winter.
Finish off your tour with a nice sunset at another Gulf Islands National Seashore site - Johnson Beach on Perdido Key. From Big Lagoon State Park, turn left (west) onto Gulf Beach Hwy. and drive about two miles to S.R. 292 taking S.R. 292 south across the bridge to Perdido Key. As you approach the beach turn left on Johnson Beach Rd. The site will be at the end of the road. Check the beach for shorebirds such as willet and sanderling from fall to spring and during the cooler months, scan the water for Northern gannets and royal and Forster's terns. Take the boardwalk through the salt marsh and maritime forest to look for herons and land birds like common yellowthroat. In summer you may hear Eastern towhees and great crested flycatchers singing along the trail.