By Kellilynn Hann
Whether you’re a fledgling birder or seasoned expert, Florida will undoubtedly end up on your must-visit list. That’s because Florida hosts more than 500 species of birds and has thousands of protected areas where you can view them.
Here are five Florida birds you won’t see anywhere else in the country, one you won’t see anywhere else in the world, and a few Florida favorites you’ll definitely want to add to your birding Life List.
Florida Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens)
While smaller and less flashy than its blue jay cousin, the Florida scrub jay has the same spunky personality. It averages 10-12 inches long, with males and females being close in size. Adults have blue at the neck, wings and tail, light grey at the back and chest, and white at the top of the head and throat. Juveniles are blue with dark grey. Florida scrub jays live exclusively in scrub oak habitats (areas of open sandy soil with shrubs and oaks less than 15 feet tall). They gather in family groups, hopping among branches and on the ground to gather insects and acorns.
Why They’re Special: The Florida scrub jay is found nowhere else in the world except for scattered areas in central and southwest Florida. Because they don’t like to move far from where they were hatched, individual populations have become so isolated that each group has developed unique vocalizations. Their limited habitat is continually threatened by development, and it’s believed fewer than 4,000 of these amazing birds remain.
Where to Find Them: While you can find Florida scrub jays in any area that has an intact scrub oak habitat, they’re regularly seen on the Scrub Ridge Trail in the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, the Archbold Biological Station south of Lake Placid, and Jonathan Dickinson State Park.
Tips for spotting: These little birds aren’t hard to spot if you’re in the right place. Not only are they blue, they’re noisy, hang out in groups, and aren’t shy around people. Look for movement in the shrubs or listen for chatter. They also love a good “lookout stick” where they can spot dinner and danger.
Everglade Snail Kite (Rostrhamus sociabilis plumbeus)
The Everglade snail kite (now called simply snail kite) is a small raptor about 17 inches long. Males are dark grey blending to black at the wingtips and head; the tail is white at the base and tip. Females and juveniles are both speckled brown and buff, however, females have a white stripe over the eye and red eyes whereas juveniles have a less defined stripe and brown eyes. Snail kites only eat apple snails and are therefore found exclusively near freshwater wetlands. In order to open the shells, the kites have evolved a deeply curved yellow-to-orange beak with a pointed black tip that makes them easy to identify.
Why They’re Special: This subspecies of snail kite was listed in Florida as an Endangered Species in 1967 and is currently on the U.S. Federal Endangered species list. Populations fluctuate dramatically depending on water conditions, varying anywhere from 800 to 1000 birds.
Where to Find Them: Snail kites were once common at Lake Okeechobee and Everglades National Park, but have gradually moved north to the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes area, especially West Lake Tohopekaliga in Kissimmee and East Lake Tohopekaliga in St. Cloud. You can also try the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in the Delray Beach area.
Tips for spotting: Snail kites hunt by sight, so they perch where they can scan vegetation for snails. Once they spot dinner, they swoop low over the water, use one leg to grab the snail, and return to their perch to open it. Look for high branches where open water meets vegetation, or scan the ground for piles of empty apple snail shells (golden spiral shells about the size of a small apple) and then look up to find the perch.
Limpkin (Aramus guarauna)
A relative of cranes and rails, limpkins are brown-and-white speckled birds that stand about two feet tall. They have long, dark grey legs and a slim grey beak that curves slightly at the tip. Males and females are similar in appearance.
Because apple snails make up most of their diet, limpkins prefer the edges of freshwater lakes and wetlands with lots of vegetation. To catch their prey, they wade slowly with a step-pause, step-pause limping motion that gives them their name.
Why They’re Special: By the 1920s, limpkins had been hunted for their meat to the point of near extinction. Thanks to conservation efforts, they are no longer federally listed. However, due to habitat threats, limpkins remain part of Florida’s Imperiled Species Management Plan.
Where to Find Them: Limpkins can be found all over Florida, so try any freshwater lake or marsh. Places where they are consistently spotted are Sweetwater Wetlands Park near Gainesville, lakes and streams in the Kissimmee area, Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, and the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Florida.
Tips for spotting: Limpkins hunt mostly at night, but they’re also active in the mornings and evenings. While it’s generally difficult to miss a two-foot bird, they have excellent camouflage, so carefully scan the vegetation along the water’s edge for movement. They also have a cry that some describe as a scream, and that will certainly help you locate one.
White-Crowned Pigeon (Patagioenas leucocephala)
We’re used to pigeons being everywhere, so it’s hard to imagine one topping a birder’s bucket list. This, however, is no ordinary pigeon. A very shy bird that nests exclusively in mangrove forests, the white-crowned pigeon prefers small islands off the mainland, making it more challenging for birders to find. Slightly larger than the familiar rock pigeon, white-crowned pigeons are dark grey with white on the crown of the head. In the right light, you’ll also be able to see iridescent feathers on the back of the neck. Adults have light yellow eyes and a pink beak with white tip. Juveniles are all grey, with eyes and crown getting lighter as they reach adulthood. All have pink feet.
Why They’re Special: The only place to see them in the United States is southernmost tip of peninsular Florida, the Florida Keys, and the Everglades. Populations are near threatened and at risk of becoming endangered.
Where to Find Them: Offshore islands in southern Florida are your best bet, but they do travel inland to feed on sea grapes and fruiting trees. Head to Flamingo in the Everglades National Park where, in spring and summer, they fly to and from their feeding grounds. Also try Kendall Indian Hammocks Park, A.D. Barnes Park, Key Largo, Key West, and Biscayne National Park.
Tips for spotting: Spotting one of these birds will be a real feather in your cap (pun intended). They are notoriously shy, flying off at the slightest disturbance. Check high up in fruiting trees or on wires, look for those pink feet, and have your binoculars or camera ready.
Smooth-Billed Ani (Crotophaga ani)
The smooth-billed ani is related to the cuckoo and roadrunner, but looks nothing like either of them. Averaging 12-14 inches long, it’s solid black with an odd combination of stumpy head, thick bill with top ridge, and a slender body with long tail. Juveniles do not have the ridge on their bill and are often confused with grackles. The ani is a cooperative breeder and hangs out in family groups. They eat primarily insects and berries, so they like bushy areas near open fields, especially where cattle attract bugs.
Why They’re Special: The smooth-billed ani is a tropical bird found nowhere else in the U.S. but Florida. While not threatened in other parts of the world, the Florida population is currently in decline and they’re becoming increasingly difficult to spot.
Where to Find Them: The smooth-billed ani is most commonly found on the southeast coast into the Florida Keys, but has been spotted on the gulf coast as well. Everglades National Park has an established population at Eco Pond; they’re also regularly seen in Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park and Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.
Tips for spotting: Luckily, their habit of hanging out in groups of about 10-20 birds makes it much easier to find them. Scan the bushes near open areas or the ground near cattle. They’re delightfully awkward— hopping, waddling, and wagging their tails— so they shouldn’t be hard to see if you’re in the right place. Keep in mind that the more common grooved-billed ani can also be present, so you’re really going to need your binoculars to tell the difference. The grooved-bill ani has ridges on its beak that look a bit like light stripes– in the smooth-billed ani those lines are absent.
Bonus Birds: 5 Iconic Florida Regulars to Add to Your List
Common in Florida but rare elsewhere in the country, these five birds are ones you’ll want to check off your list while you’re visiting The Sunshine State.
American White Ibis (Eudocimus albus)
These beautiful white birds can be seen all over Florida— in yards, parks, and even the middle of town. About the size of a crow, they have pink legs and long, curved, pink bills well-suited to digging in dirt and mud for food. Juveniles are brown and white. They hang out in groups, and are quite a beautiful sight when flying.
Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio martinica)
Iridescent green, blue, and purple birds with an orange beak and long yellow legs— it’s like a piece of rainbow fell out of the sky. About 14 inches long, they’re statewide in freshwater wetlands. They prefer to walk on floating plants and eat whatever they can find. Juveniles are a rusty green color.
Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga)
These water birds are common throughout Florida and easy to spot due to their large size and habit of spreading their wings to dry. They appear brownish black with white speckled wings, and have big webbed feet that can be grey, yellow or orange. Their yellow bills are long and pointed, helping distinguish them from cormorants. They hang out near shallow fresh water where they can swim and spear fish.
Roseate Spoonbill (Platalea ajaja)
When you see one, you’ll know it— the roseate spoonbill stands about two feet tall, is mostly pink, and its beak is flat and rounded on the end (designed for sifting the mud for food). They’re found along Florida’s coasts and feed in both fresh and salt water marshes, lagoons, mangrove habitats, and other shallow waterways.
Wood Stork (Mycteria americana)
The wood stork is the only stork native to North America. They’re very large, white birds, standing about three feet tall on average, with grey, featherless heads. Their long legs and beak are perfect for catching fish and other prey as they wade along the edges of freshwater lakes and marshes. They love perching in tall trees like cypress, and roost in large groups.
And there’s more!
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