By Gary McKechnie
Birds fly south for the winter for the same reasons people do: sunshine, beaches and the great outdoors. Yet birds have the advantage of free accommodations courtesy of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail, a natural navigational route that stretches more than 2,000 miles across the state and contains 515 habitats. For a complete list, visit that website. But for now, consider visiting these five destinations to see some of the best birding in Florida.
Mangrove swamps, mudflats, rivers, lakes and hardwood forests at the J.N. ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge are home to herons, egrets, ibises, storks, spoonbills, ducks, sparrows, blackbirds, warblers and shorebirds. Take a tram tour on Wildlife Drive or canoe/kayak into mangrove wilderness areas for better birding views. For a special treat, take a sunset cruise on Tarpon Bay.
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.
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.
The majestic 140,000-acre Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge provides a wide variety of habitats, making it a favorite spot for 330 documented bird species, including ospreys, bald eagles, anhingas, terns, herons, egrets, ibises and roseate spoonbills. Keep an eye out – you just may see the endangered Florida scrub jay and piping plover.
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.