Florida is an amazing place to go birding. If you are birder and have not been to Florida, you are missing out! Even if you’re not a birder, Florida makes it simple to take in some great wildlife viewing along the Great Florida Birding & Wildlife Trail. The 2,000-mile long, self-guided highway trail boasts more than 500 sites around the state, and VisitFlorida.com lists five of the trail’s top birding spots. As of June, 2014, we have been to all five!
1. J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is located on the Gulf Coast’s picturesque Sanibel Island. This is an excellent spot to see species including Roseate Spoonbills along with many other large birds such as herons and egrets. The refuge has a four-mile driving loop which you can also walk or bicycle. The refuge opens early in the morning — look for the gaggle of photographers with impressively large telephoto lenses for the best photo spots!
2. Dry Tortugas National Park, located 70 miles west of Key West, requires a boat (or seaplane) to reach, but it is so worth it! The site contains the massive, 19th century, brick Fort Jefferson. Here, Doctor Mudd, who treated John Wilkes Booth after Lincoln’s assassination, was imprisoned. The fort itself is impressive, but its surroundings are incredibly beautiful. It’s possible to camp on island ($3 per person, per night), to snorkel from the beach, and even to bring a kayak (via boat) from Key West. Kayakers beware: you may be assaulted by noddies. Well, not exactly assaulted but investigated closely. It’s a little bit exciting and little bit like the movie “The Birds” at the same time. Thousands of Sooty Terns and Brown Noddies nest here in spring, too!
3. Everglades National Park is the granddaddy of south Florida birding and wildlife viewing spots. It is a huge park, and it is glorious. It is amazing and incredible. You will not only see birds there but all kinds of beauty in nature. For those used to mountain vistas, its beauty is quite a departure. Still, Everglades National Park is an experience not to be missed. Highlights include a wide variety of birding spots and the trails in the park’s Shark Valley area. Bicycling, canoeing, kayaking, tram tours, and even geocaching are alternative ways to soak in the Everglades experience. (Nearby Biscayne National Park even has its own birding trail!)
4. Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is located on Florida’s east coast near Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach. Merritt Island NWR offers a stretch of beach often so deserted it’s difficult to believe you’re in Florida! When we visited, we were the only ones on the beach! There’s also a seven-mile driving loop that offers numerous opportunities for viewing wildlife, including a variety of shorebirds and waterbirds.
5. Stormwater Treatment Area 5, south of Lake Okeechobee, is perhaps the most remote of these five sites, and certainly the least glamorously named, but it is also one of the most rewarding. Open Friday through Monday, not always open to cars, and sometimes closed for hunting, there’s no cost to visit. Florida’s water treatment areas are designed to filter water before it heads to the Everglades, and as a result STA-5 is quite popular with migratory birds and waterfowl. We visited on a very hot summer afternoon when only walking was allowed — let’s just say next time, we’d prefer be able to drive. The walk was enjoyable — but it was a blazingly hot day and we were able to cover only a fraction of the area on foot. (At the very least, bring some water with you on your walk, unlike some other bird brains!) We saw our first Snail Kite there, lots and lots of beautiful Red-winged Blackbirds, lots of Purple Gallinules, and several Black-necked Stilts which were not happy that we were in their space — they let us know by circling over us and squawking. We also saw an alligator!
Florida is an especially good place for beginning birders because the birds are so plentiful. Many of them are large, and relatively abundant — seeing them over and over again makes them much easier to identify than smaller species (aka “LBJs” — little brown jobbies).
We highly recommend birding in Florida. Just look for the Great Florida Birding & Wildlife Trail signs and you’ll be on your way!
Have any favorite or off-the-beaten path wildlife viewing sites of your own? Share them in the comments, and enjoy your week or your weekend among the birds!