Great Florida Bird­ing and Wildlife Trail

Must-see 2,000-mile scenic path crosses Florida

Times of the Islands - - Departments - BY WIL­LIAM R. COX

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.

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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

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