By Kevin Mims
Florida is a birder's paradise. Our mild climate and diverse habitats attract hundreds of bird species, including such sought-after finds as the rare Florida burrowing owl, snail kite and a wealth of wading birds.
Some species, like limpkins, occur here year 'round, while others, like swallow-tailed kites and yellow-billed cuckoos, come to Florida to raise their young in spring and summer.
Other migratory species pause here only to rest and feed before or after crossing the Gulf of Mexico in October and April.
One reason that Florida is so bird-rich is its unique geographic placement between tropical and temperate regions. Another is that it has two important flyways, or migratory corridors, used by Caribbean birds and birds from as far away as the Canadian Prairies; if you want to see these species on this continent, Florida is one of the best places to do it. Some are tiny little warblers that fly 3,000 miles to get here.
At one time only local birders were privy to the great wildlife viewing sites and trails in their area. Now, The Great Florida Birding Trail leads local and visiting birders to many of these hidden jewels, as well as to stunning state parks and other pristine sites perfect for viewing your favorite feathered friends. The 2,000-mile driving tour includes almost 500 old and new birding locations selected for their excellent bird watching or bird education opportunities.
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. Modeled after the successful Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, it combines special highway signs identifying birding trail sites with a detailed map showcasing the wonderful birding opportunities in Florida. It is organized in a series of clusters, each containing one to 15 sites highlighting communities and special ecosystems like the Lake Wales Ridge. Although portions are designed for drive-by viewing, others encourage parking your car and hiking, boating or bicycling for better viewing. From beautiful beaches to lost-in-time wetlands, birders of all levels can experience Florida's diverse habitat, wildlife and local flavor while engaging in ornithological pursuits.
The Great Florida Birding Trail divides the state into four sections: The East Florida section opened in November 2000, the West Florida section followed in November 2002 and the Panhandle Florida section opened in May 2004. The ambitious, statewide project was completed with the opening of the South Florida section in 2006.
You can explore the four sections at Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail website.
Here's a sampling of their advice as well as a glimpse of some glorious adventures awaiting your discovery:
East Florida Section
Start at Fort Clinch State Park in Fernandina Beach, a great introduction to Florida's species and habitats. Check the entrance road's hammock and marsh for warblers, waders, wrens and sparrows. Watch for painted buntings in spring and summer and peruse the pier for seabirds and purple sandpipers and gannets in winter.
Fort Clinch State Park is considered a trail "gateway" or hub, for birding trail information, as is Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Titusville. Here, in the shadow of the space program, you can drive Black Point for rails, ducks like pintails and teals, and shorebirds. Reddish egrets "dance" on salt flats and harriers flush shorebirds in winter. Hammock and scrub trails are good for migrants and Florida scrub-jays perch on telephone wires and posts on Kennedy Boundary Parkway.
The grounds at Bok Tower Gardens are carpeted in cultivated gardens along with native landscape. Here you can find kestrels, nighthawks, pileated woodpeckers and loggerhead shrikes. Look for hummingbirds in spring and summer, and migratory songbirds in April and September through October.
West Florida Section
Eagles, water birds and common songbirds make the Crystal River Archaeological State Park, a nice starter site for beginners. It is a small park with nice facilities and easy, paved trails through hardwoods attractive to songbirds in migration. The river view from the top of an ancient shell mound is excellent for scoping winter ducks and waders along the waterline year 'round.
The oak hammock at Caladesi Island State Park, reveals songbird migrants and the shore shelters wintering shorebirds, like red knots and piping plovers, as well as breeders like American oystercatchers. A diversity of terns, gulls and waders are also present. This park is only accessible by boat; a ferry runs from neighboring Honeymoon Island State Park at regular intervals.
Shired Island Beach access at the north end of the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge offers trails through coastal hammock past mudflats and open beach good for everything from wintering shorebirds to shorebird migrants making landfall in spring. Dixie Mainline is a nine-mile driving/biking/walking road through pine flatwoods, bottomland heartwoods and marsh. Expect gorgeous wildlife viewing, but be aware that hunting use can be intense here in October and November, when biking and hiking are not advised. Fishbone Creek offers a platform vantage of salt marsh. Salt Creek has an ADA-accessible boardwalk to the marsh where bald eagles frequently nest. There is something to see here year 'round, but be prepared for biting insects in warm weather.
St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge is an extremely rustic refuge, "under-birded" in large part because it takes some effort to access it. Cross Indian Pass via the private ferry or in your own canoe. This barrier island is very large; prepare to hike the extensive sand roads or bring a bike. Be sure to pick up a map at the refuge office in Apalachicola, at the Indian Pass boat ramp, or download one online. Seaside sparrows populate the salt marsh on the east side of the island and interior wetlands host least bitterns and ducks, fodder for peregrine falcons and other raptors in migration. Oystercatchers and a variety of plovers nest on the beach (please respect areas closed for their protection), and the island's hammocks are a haven for returning songbird migrants in March and April. Three four-day hunts, one each in mid-November, mid-December and early January close the island to other uses.
Upon entering Ochlockonee River State Park in Sopchoppy, ask at the gate for the locations of active red cockaded woodpecker cavities or recent sightings. Drive or walk the "scenic drive" road, watching for these pinewoods specialists, as well as pine warblers, eastern towhees and common yellowthroats. If you choose to launch a canoe here, ask at the gate about water levels and clearance. Prothonotary warblers and wood storks may be seen along the river, as well as skulking green herons, limpkins and least bitterns in the brushy margins. For early morning access, consider camping overnight and enjoy chuck will's-widows and screech owls after dark.
St. George Island State Park is regularly rated one of Florida's most beautiful beaches, but what all the beachgoers don't realize is that it's spectacular for bird watching, too. Bonaparte's gulls are reliable in winter and spring, snowy plovers and American oystercatchers nest here, and gull-billed terns cruise the beach in summer. Gannets plunge offshore October through March, and spring migrants like swallow-tailed kites, common nighthawks and herons can be seen arriving off the ocean in March and April. The sandhill trail from the camping area and the oaks surrounding the youth camp are both excellent spots for migrant songbirds like blue grosbeaks and scarlet tanagers in April. There's something to see year 'round, but birding is best and beach visitor numbers are lowest October through April.
South Florida Section
At Bahia Honda State Park, explore mangrove swamp, hardwood hammocks, salt marsh and sandy beaches, either on foot, bicycle or by boat. 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.
Great Florida Birding Trail gurus suggest that you...
o Ensure a successful trip by checking the trail guides in advance
o Make sure you're visiting seasonal sites at the right time of year
o Call ahead to visit sites that are accessible by appointment only
o Be aware of birding etiquette
o Be prepared with binoculars, water, insect repellant, sunscreen and your field checklist