Everglades National Park, Florida. Photo: Mac Stone

Birding the States

Birding in Florida

Subtropical specialities and rare birds call for birders to visit the Sunshine State.

National Wildlife Refuges National Parks Acreage of Important Bird Areas
29 11 10,414,878

Sooner or later, every birder visits the Sunshine State. The subtropical habitats of its southern peninsula provide homes for several species found nowhere else in the United States, from Snail Kite and Limpkin to White-crowned Pigeon.

Planning a nature tour here will most certainly land you in the Everglades: the vast “River of Grass” ranks as one of the most important wilderness areas in North America. Yet there’s much more to the state than this national park. Florida is, after all, a very big place. It takes longer to drive from Key West to Pensacola, for example, than to drive across the width of Texas.

Pine forests, grasslands, varied wetlands, and the longest coastline of any Lower 48 state add to Florida’s avian diversity. Around 516 species have been recorded in the state, and while many of them are rare vagrants, the total number of regularly occurring birds will keep any visiting birder entertained year-round.

Theme parks, beaches, and Miami glitz may fill Florida’s tourist brochures, but conservationists have managed to protect a significant percentage of the state as parks, refuges, and other natural areas. From any point in Florida it’s only a short drive to a birding destination offering an experience like none other in the country.

Florida Birding Hotspots

 

Everglades National Park

Less than an hour from the Miami airport, Everglades National Park protects the largest wilderness area in the eastern United States. Much of the park is difficult to access, but a drive along the 38-mile-long main park road offers plenty of birding opportunities.

The short, easy Anhinga Trail at Royal Palm provides close views of wading birds and, of course, Anhinga. Farther along, sites such as Mahogany Hammock and Snake Bight Trail offer fine birding for woodland species including White-crowned Pigeon and Black-whiskered Vireo. Roadside ponds may host ibises, herons, Roseate Spoonbill, and Wood Stork. Watch the sky for Swallow-tailed Kite and the rare Short-tailed Hawk, and look for Bronzed Cowbird and Shiny Cowbird near the Flamingo visitor center.

At Shark Valley, a separate section of the park off the Tamiami Trail (US 41), a 15-mile road loops through the “River of Grass” wet prairie. Take a guided tram tour, walk, or bicycle this route for a good chance to see Snail Kite, as well as a great diversity of ibises, egrets, and other waders.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

Operated by the National Audubon Society, this superb natural area offers easy access into a bald-cypress forest as well as pinewoods and wet prairie. A 2.25-mile boardwalk winds through one section of the 10,500-acre sanctuary, where bird sightings may include Tricolored Heron (one of 17 species of wading birds found here), Roseate Spoonbill, Anhinga, Swallow-tailed Kite, Bald Eagle, Limpkin, Sandhill Crane, Barred Owl, Pileated Woodpecker, and Painted Bunting.

Corkscrew Swamp is best known, though, for its breeding colony of Wood Storks, the most important nesting assemblage in the United States. The protection of this colony was the impetus for the sanctuary’s establishment in the 1950s. Habitat loss and the decline of Wood Stork populations have made Corkscrew Swamp a vital element in preserving this species.

The Blair Audubon Visitor Center here offers a café, a nature store, exhibits, an art gallery, and picnic tables. 

J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge

Located on Sanibel Island near Fort Myers, this 6,400-acre refuge has long been one of Florida’s favorite birding sites. Located amid a landscape of condos, cafes, and similar development, “Ding” Darling (named for a conservation-minded cartoonist) offers a welcome swath of greenery and wetlands.

The most popular activity at the refuge is the 4-mile wildlife drive (closed Fridays), with easy viewing of pelicans, wading birds (including Roseate Spoonbill), shorebirds, gulls, and terns. Osprey is common, and Swallow-tailed Kite, and Short-tailed Hawk are occasionally seen. Low tide is best for water birds, so check a tide table before visiting. Two Florida specialties, Gray Kingbird and Black-whiskered Vireo, may be found during nesting season, though the latter has declined in recent years. The elusive Mangrove Cuckoo is also a possibility. Scan the sky for soaring Magnificent Frigatebird.

The 100-acre Bailey Tract is a disjunct section located a short distance from the main refuge. It’s worth a visit for its quiet trails and the chance to see wading birds and migrant warblers and sparrows.

Dry Tortugas National Park

Visiting this national park is hardly a straightforward undertaking, since it consists of a few tiny islands nearly 70 miles west of Key West, surrounded by the vast Gulf of Mexico. The only ways to reach it are by boat or seaplane.

Nonetheless, it’s a famed birding location—as well as a truly fascinating historic site, with its huge 19th-century fort. In spring migration, northbound birds crossing the Gulf home in on 14-acre Garden Key, the main island, at times covering trees, shrubs, and building in astounding numbers. Peak season for this activity is April and early May.

In spring and summer, thousands of Sooty Terns nest on nearby Bush Key, along with Brown Noddy terns and sparing numbers of Black Noddies. Visitors are not allowed on Bush Key at this time, but it’s close enough to Garden Key that birds can be seen through binoculars. Magnificent Frigatebird is common in the area, and Brown Booby and Masked Booby might be found.

The national park website has information on getting to the islands. The most common ways are daily ferry and seaplane trips, although they allow only limited time on site. Camping is an alternative, but campers most be completely self-sufficient, bringing their own food, water, and other supplies.

Big Cypress National Preserve

This 729,000-acre tract offers many of the same habitats and wildlife as adjacent Everglades National park but is far less visited. With prairies, hardwood hammocks, pine forests, cypress swamps, and estuaries, it supports a wide diversity of birds, although access is limited, especially regarding easily passable hiking trails.

Most birders drive one or both of the two main preserve roads, stopping along the way to look and listen. The 17-mile Turner River, Upper Wagonwheel, and Birdon

Road Loop Drive runs parallel to artificial canals, often giving very close views of feeding herons, egrets, Roseate Spoonbill, and Wood Stork, as well as other waterbirds including Anhinga and Purple Gallinule.

The preceding drive is located north of the Tamiami Trail (US 41). On the south side of the highway, the 24-mile Loop Road also offers viewing of waterbirds, as well as Red-shouldered Hawk and Barred Owl as it passes through bald-cypress swamp and pinewoods. Check the sky regularly for Swallow-tailed Kite and Short-tailed Hawk.

Myakka River State Park/Oscar Scherer State Park

Just southeast of Sarasota, 37,000-acre Myakka River State Park is a fine spot for many southern Florida species, from waterbirds to songbirds. With 38 miles of hiking trails, excellent canoeing and kayaking, a wetland boardwalk, a suspended walkway in the forest canopy, and boat tours, it offers many ways to see birds.

Among many others, look for waterfowl (including Black-bellied Whistling-Duck), a great variety of wading birds, Swallow-tailed Kite, Limpkin, Sandhill Crane, and Crested Caracara.

In winter and spring, Myakka River often has a birding naturalist present at a nature trail, which can be helpful for beginners or newcomers to the area. Ask at the visitor center for details.

A short distance west of Myakka River is Oscar Scherer State Park. This 1,381-acre site is best known as a nearly sure-fire spot to find the threatened Florida Scrub-Jay, the only species of bird endemic to the state. Imperiled by loss of its habitat—a sandy-soil landscape of small oaks and shrubs—this jay is found primarily in the central part of the peninsular Florida.

Merrit Island National Wildlife Refuge

Located on the Atlantic coast adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center, Merritt Island has recorded more than 350 species of birds. It encompasses sandy beach and dunes, saltwater and freshwater wetlands, palmetto scrub, pinewoods, and hardwood forest.

The 7-mile Black Point Wildlife Drive is a great way to see waterfowl (especially in winter) and wading birds such as herons, egrets, ibises, and Roseate Spoonbill. The presence of these birds is heavily dependent on water levels, so populations vary from year to year and seasonally. Bald Eagle is a common sight throughout the refuge.

Six hiking trails provide opportunities to get away from roads and into habitats including palm scrub, oak hammock, and pine flatwoods. One trail follows a dike between impounded wetlands.

Merritt Island is a stronghold of the federally threatened Florida Scrub-Jay, which has suffered significant population loss in recent decades from loss of habitat. Look for them along roads and on the one-mile Pine Flatwoods Trail.

It’s easy to continue through the refuge to Canaveral National Seashore’s Playalinda Beach. When this area isn’t too crowded with sun seekers, it can be a good place to look for shorebirds, gulls, and terns.

Disney Wilderness Preserve

This 11,500-acre area was established as mitigation for habitat destruction caused by expansion of the large Disney complex near Kissimmee. Habitat is being restored to protect a number of endangered species. The former ranch includes wetlands, pinewoods, scrub, and grassland.

Among the birds found here are Wild Turkey, Wood Stork, Swallow-tailed Kite, Sandhill Crane, the occasional Crested Caracara, Florida Scrub-Jay, and many wading species. In addition, the area hosts three birds that specialize in pine habitat breed: Red-cockaded Woodpecker (an endangered species), Brown-headed Nuthatch, and Bachman’s Sparrow.

Much of the preserve is not publicly accessible, but hiking is permitted on trails near the visitor center.

Nearby, Lake Tohopekaliga and East Lake Tohopekaliga are known for populations of Snail Kite, a Florida specialty. There’s limited access to much of the shoreline, but one good place to look for the kite, as well as Limpkin, is Kaliga Park on the southern end of East Lake Tohopekaliga in the town of St. Cloud.

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge

This refuge on the Gulf Coast south of Tallahassee covers 68,000 acres of freshwater and saltwater marsh, grasslands, pine forest, and savannah. It’s home to more than 20 Bald Eagle nests and several dozen endangered Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, the latter translocated here in a restoration effort.

St. Marks is at its birding best in migration seasons and winter, when shorebirds and waterfowl flock to its wetlands and shore areas. Pelicans and wading birds are present throughout the year, as are other wetland birds such as Anhinga, Clapper Rail, Common Gallinule, Purple Gallinule, and many species of gulls and terns.

Gray Kingbird is found here in spring and summer, near the edge of its range, and Vermilion Flycather, though rare, appears with some regularity in winter. Henslow’s and Nelson’s sparrows are winter visitors, and Seaside Sparrow is present year-round.

Lighthouse Road (Route 59) leads past many impoundments on the 11-mile dead-end drive between US 98 and the coast. About nine miles along the road, the one-mile Tower Pond Trail is a good hiking choice for both land and waterbirds. The 1842 St. Marks Lighthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and restoration is under way.

Apalachicola National Forest

At nearly 600,000 acres, this is Florida’s largest national forest, with one of the nation’s largest populations of the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker. The pine woods of Apalachicola are also home to two other sought-after birds specializing in this habitat: Brown-headed Nuthatch and Bachman’s Sparrow.

The small town of Sumatra, about 60 miles southwest of Tallahassee, makes a good starting point to look for these species. There’s a short trail at the Wright Lake Recreation Area south of Sumatra that is productive for birding. The Apalachee Savannahs Scenic Byway begins on Highway 65 just north of Sumatra and follows Route 379 northward. Driving this route for about 15 miles leads through pine and grassland habitats where these three pine-loving birds are found.

Of course, an expanse of forest this large is home to dozens of other species typical of the Florida Panhandle such as Swallow-tailed Kite, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-headed Woodpecker, Northern Parula, and the sometimes-elusive Swainson’s Warbler. In winter, the scarce Henslow’s Sparrow is sometimes found in grassy areas among pine woods.

Birding Trail

Great Florida Birding Trail

Linking the high points of the peninsula and the Florida Panhandle, the Great Florida Birding Trail lives up to its name with sheer magnitude—stretching some 2,000 miles and including almost 500 sites—and with the quality of the birding it offers. Be prepared to see huge concentrations of Florida’s most famous water birds, including flocks of wintering teal, pintails, and other ducks in the marshes of the Panhandle, teeming colonies of sooty terns and brown noddies on the Dry Tortugas, and noisy treetop nesting groups of wood storks at Corkscrew (see above). If you’re lucky, you might catch specialties, too, like the elegant white-crowned pigeon, the elusive buffy-toned mangrove cuckoo, and the black-whiskered vireo, all birds of Caribbean or tropical affinities. Droll burrowing owls blink beside their burrows, and graceful swallow-tailed kites swoop and circle above the cypress strands. This trail’s biggest star by far, the Florida scrub-jay, is a striking blue bird found nowhere else in the world. These jays have a reputation for being practically fearless of humans, so your odds of seeing at least one—if not a constellation’s worth—are quite good. —Kenn Kaufman

Audubon State Office and Centers*

*Be sure to call ahead before visiting Audubon centers and sanctuaries to make sure they're open to the public.

×