By Kevin Mims

Bird watching in Florida is a big deal – even bigger than you might imagine.

In fact, birding is second only to beach-related activities as a form of outdoor recreation for both visitors and residents. The trend is still on the rise, so count on seeing more and more people carrying binoculars and spotting scopes around the Sunshine State.

If you’re already into birding, you probably know that Florida is considered one of the best places in the world for the activity. Here are just a few of the top spots for bird watching in Florida that you don't want to miss:

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

For Titusville, having one of the state's most diverse wildlife habitats on your doorstep is a good thing. In January, the area hosts the annual Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival, which is the largest of its kind in the country. Birders flock to the area en masse to get a look at migrating waterfowl and all manner of shorebirds along Black Point Wildlife Drive, a 7-mile loop around salt marsh impoundments. Whether you’re visiting for a day or a week, you’re sure to check a few species off your life list here. 

Everglades National Park

When wildlife lovers dream, they more than likely dream about the Everglades. Not only is it a National Park, it's also designated as an International Biosphere Reserve for its ecological importance. Residents of Everglades National Park include the Florida panther, American crocodile, the rare Ghost orchid, manatees and much more. For a good day trip, check out the Anhinga Trail and the Shark Valley tram.

Dry Tortugas National Park

Located about 70 miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico, Dry Tortugas National Park is a little difficult to reach, but the reward is well worth the effort. Catch a ride on the Yankee Freedom Ferry, a high-speed catamaran that can get you there in just a couple of hours. Go in the spring and you'll be rewarded with the rare sight of thousands of Sooty terns and Brown noddies nesting on Bush Key.

J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge

Year-round Florida bird watching and wildlife viewing is terrific on Sanibel Island. At "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, you can drive around the 4-mile Wildlife Drive and get looks at Roseate spoonbills and Gray kingbirds. Take a walk on the Indigo Trail in the summer months, where Mangrove cuckoos can be found.

STA-5 Lake Okeechobee

It's not a National Park or a National Wildlife Refuge, but STA-5 is one of the best birding spots in South Florida. Stormwater treatment areas are designed to filter out excess nutrients that would otherwise flow to the Everglades, but they also turn out to be excellent places for Florida bird watching. To access STA-5, you'll need to register a visit with one of the local Audubon Society chapters. The birding is fantastic year-round, and you'll definitely add a few life-listers at STA-5.

Fisheating Creek Wildlife Management Area

Stretching for 40 miles along the only free-flowing tributary to Lake Okeechobee, bald cypress swamps and hardwood hammocks attract Florida black bears and panthers as well as a wide range of birds, including hefty whooping and sandhill cranes and sleek swallow-tailed kites. Ibises, herons, egrets, hawks, ospreys, owls and bald eagles enjoy a version of Florida where time stands still and it’s okay for you to slow down.

Tomoka State Park

Some of the best birding in Florida can be found at the Tomoka Marsh Aquatic Preserve, which attracts more than 160 species, including wood storks, wading birds, gulls, loons and bald eagles. Added bonus: proximity to Bulow Creek State Park – another site on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail.

Blackwater River State Park

Whether you’re paddling on the river of Blackwater State Park or walking along the Chain of Lakes Nature Trail, look around and you may just spy a river otter, white-tailed deer or cool bird. Recent sightings include yellow-billed cuckoos, hairy woodpeckers, great blue herons, wild turkeys and red-shouldered hawks.

Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park

Osprey barred owls  hawks and wading birds reside south of Gainesville in Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. Sandhill cranes and other winter migrating species will have departed by spring but there is a large list of resident species to enjoy. Be on the lookout for pileated and red-bellied woodpeckers along the Bolen Bluff Trail.

Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge

Located 25 miles west of Daytona Beach, Lake Woodruff NWR borders the St. Johns River and provides habitat for migratory waterfowl and wading birds. Herons white ibis anhinga and pied-billed grebes are commonly seen in the spring.

If these locations aren’t enough, don’t worry. The Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail covers the entire state, with 514 official sites to explore.