Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail
Must-see 2,000-mile scenic path crosses Florida
Thousands of amateur participants and professional birders frequent Florida each year photographing and building their bird life list. Millions of Floridians are bird feeder-watchers. Society has lost contact with nature and birding helps many to reconnect. Approximately 600 species of birds have been documented in the state. Along the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail, known as GFBWT, about 150 breeding species of birds, more than 50 spring and fall migratory species and up to 130 species of wintering birds can be observed. Florida is also populated by nearly 30 exotic species and more than 130 species that visit Florida irregularly. This birding trail is also great for observing other wildlife, a variety of habitats and butterflies.
The GFBWT is 2,000 miles long from north Florida to south Florida. The trail is divided into four sections—Panhandle, West, East and South. Within each section birding sites are grouped in close proximity to each other. There are many sites in each section that include different bird and wildlife species associated with the various habitats found in the 11 biophysical regions of Florida. All these areas are accessible to the public by visiting a national forest, national park, national wildlife refuge, state forest, state park, wildlife management area and city or county preserves in each section.
In the South section of the GFBWT there are 122 sites in 12 counties. On or near Sanibel and Captiva are three sites—J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Cayo Costa State Park, and Lighthouse Park Beach. “Ding” Darling is rated one of the top 10 birding spots in North America. The beaches, Sanibel Causeway, Bailey Tract and many other sites on Sanibel provide great birding and wildlife opportunities.
More than 240 species of birds have been observed on the island. This includes listed (protected) birds such as the American oyster catcher, black skimmer, brown pelican, least tern, little blue heron, piping plover, reddish egret, roseate spoonbill, snowy egret, snowy plover, tricolored heron, white ibis and wood stork. There is also a chance to see the bald eagle (four nests), great black-backed gull, black scoter and redhead ducks. The common eider has been observed at the causeway. Many spring and fall migrating hawks, orioles, grosbeaks, tanagers, vireos, warblers and shorebirds have also been observed on Sanibel.
Other South section birding sites near Sanibel are Bunche Beach Preserve, Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve, Little Estero Lagoon, and Cecil M. Webb Wildlife Management Area. Bunche Beach Preserve, located at the south end of John Morris Road in Fort Myers, is a must for serious birders and photographers. The best time to visit is at low tide when large numbers of wading birds, shorebirds, gulls and terns can be observed and photographed. Its beach waters are rich in fish and invertebrates. Ospreys and bald eagles are attracted, foraging on fish and resting on the beach. Peregrine falcons are attracted
THE TRAIL IS DIVIDED INTO FOUR SECTIONS— PANHANDLE, WEST, EAST AND SOUTH.
because of the large number of shorebirds. There is also a good chance of observing an American avocet, long-billed curlew, marbled godwit, whimbrel, black-necked stilt, black scoter and red-breasted merganser. The wading bird foraging displays, especially of the reddish egret, are phenomenal. Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve in Fort Myers and Cecil M. Webb Wildlife Management Area—just north of Fort Myers— are also visited by serious birders. Migrating and wintering warblers, vireos, tanagers and grosbeaks frequent these sites from fall to spring. Many expert birders build their bird life list at these sites. The Cecil M. Webb Wildlife Management Area is home to the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. Observe this endangered woodpecker near their nest cavity trees from April through June. The 67,758-acre preserve is maintained by fire and mimics what undeveloped expanses of hydric (wet) pine flatwoods looked like historically in Southwest Florida. It is a must-see management area. Many other bird and wildlife species can be seen on easily traveled roads and hiking trails.
Research the four GFBWT sections on floridabirdingtrail.com/ birding-101/. At the top of the homepage, click on Trip Planner to bring up the Trip Planning Tool. There are several items to click on, such as the region (section) you are interested in. This brings up a map with birding spots that have specific information. For example, clicking on Cayo Costa State Park gives the address, phone number, hours open, entrance fee, description, birds, amenities, directions and E-Bird Hotspot Profile.
On the Trip Planning Tool, you can also look for a targeted bird species by clicking on Bird Species. This provides the best birding sites for your birds of interest. Click on Amenities to get info on restrooms, camping, access for the disabled, seasonal hunting and horseback riding.
Another great source of information on birding sites in Florida is the book A Birder’s Guide to Florida, by Bill Pranty. And no matter how you do your research, all will agree that it’s fun, educational and great exercise when visiting the many birding sites along the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail. William R. Cox has been a professional nature photographer and ecologist for more than 35 years. Visit him online at williamrcoxphotography.com.
The Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail is also wonderful for observing other critters such as butterflies and sea creatures.
Hundreds of bird species dot Southwest Florida, including colorful characters such as the blacknecked stilt (far left), the roseate spoonbill and the reddish egret that extends its wings to mimic shade to attract its prey.
J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel is rated one of the top 10 birding spots in North America