The (Really) Great Florida Birding Trail

October 20, 2000, thirty minutes before sunrise; southbound on I-95 from Titusville. Flying Anhingas, resembling elongated Wild Turkeys, materialize out of the mists. West onto Sarno Road extension toward Lake Washington. A raptor appears low from our left. First impression: Osprey (habitat and down-bowed wings). It crosses 30 feet in front of us, plucks something from the base of a reed, lands 20 feet to our right, sticks its curved bill into the snail it just captured, frees the muscle, and eats it. It wasn’t the first time I had seen an adult male Snail Kite, but it sure was my best view of one!

Thus was I introduced to The Great Florida Birding Trail.

My driver and host during two of my recent Florida trips, courtesy of the Titusville Area Visitor’s Council, was Laurilee Thompson. An incredibly energetic woman, this onetime commercial swordfish boat Captain now runs the Dixie Crossroads Seafood Restaurant in Titusville. She is also the driving force behind the annual Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival, and is one of Florida’s most effective advocates for eco-tourism. Although relatively new to birding, Laurilee’s lack of experience is more than made up for by her focus, enthusiasm, and local knowledge. I could not have had a better guide!

So what is The Great Florida Birding Trail?

Unashamedly modeled after the very successful Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, The Great Florida Birding Trail is sponsored by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in partnership with the Wildlife Foundation of Florida, the Florida Park Service, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service, Audubon of Florida, Visit Florida, and the Florida Department of Transportation. The Great Florida Birding Trail is clearly warranted by the State’s outstanding birding, a result of its climate, location, and habitat diversity. Among its most sought after birds are Magnificent Frigatebird, Snail and Swallow-tailed Kites, Short-tailed Hawk, Limpkin, Greater Flamingo, Mangrove Cuckoo, Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Gray Kingbird, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Black-whiskered Vireo, Shiny Cowbird, and (of course) the endemic Florida Scrub-jay. The Trail is also intended to introduce resident and non-resdient birders alike to new birding sites, thereby increasing and spreading the impact of our eco-dollars.

This last point is of no small moment!

During the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, the biggest threats to birds included market hunting and pesticides. Today, the biggest threats include habitat destruction and fragmentation. By dispersing eco-dollars throughout the State, The Great Florida Birding Trail demonstrates that keeping Florida wild is good business. The Trail’s web-site (www.floridabirdingtrail.com) also offers downloadable “Birding Calling Cards” you can leave at local establishments to remind proprietors it is to their economic advantage to restore and protect Florida’s natural endowments. As Julie Brashears, Coordinator of The Great Florida Birding Trail, says: “Communicating the importance of birder visibility in communities is currently the most important message of the Birding Trail. Unless we make a point to distinguish ourselves as birders, communities assume we're traditional tourists, and our economic impacts motivate paving and draining, rather than wildland conservation.” (It is for this reason I regularly wear binoculars and birding t-shirts into restaurants and hotels, wherever I bird.)

Florida is a big state, so The Great Florida Birding Trail will consist of four parts. The East Section officially opened at Titusville’s November 2000 Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival. The West Section should open in early 2002, the Panhandle Section in late 2003, and the South Section in early 2005. The Trail’s web-site provides status updates and a downloadable East Section map. Hard copies of this map are available at the three East Section “Gateway” sites: Fort Clinch State Park (north of Jacksonville), Tenoroc Fish Management Area (northeast of Lakeland), and Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (east of Titusville). In addition to directions, the map identifies facilities available at each site, the best time of the year and day to visit, and additional information such as which sites are best for less experienced birders.

It was only fitting the East Section was dedicated at the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival as Laurilee nominated the most sites (over 40 out of 136), and because of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Merritt Island, home of the Kennedy Space Center, encompasses 144,000 acres and is a strong-hold for the endangered Florida Scrub-Jay. (About 40% of the world’s population reside in Brevard County, with most occupying Merritt Island NWR.) These well-studied (many are color-banded), fascinating birds (non-breeders regularly help care for the young of other individuals) are one reason the Refuge is so well known. Another is its combination of  fresh water impoundments  adjacent to salt water and brackish estuaries. Indeed, this diversity of aquatic habitats is a major reason Merritt Island is one of the jewels of the National Wildlife Refuge System and, as such, a great economic resource for Florida’s central east coast.

The main roads through Merritt Island can be busy, but the side roads and dikes are less traveled and often yield especially intimate views of Nature. For example, on February 25, 2001 from such locations I watched a nearby Osprey catch and eat a fish, as an adult Little Blue Heron patrolled nearby just in case a scrap should fall. A Double-crested Cormorant, so close I could see its cobalt blue mouth lining, caught a Mullet too large to swallow, despite repeated attempts. A Wood Stork emerged from the water revealing its baby pink toes, and an adult White Ibis strolled by showing off its powder blue irises. (I was beginning to think the local Bald Eagles might acquire an inferiority complex because I spent so little time watching them!)

Another excellent East Section site is Blue Heron Wetlands Treatment Facility, a half mile west of I-95 (exit 79) in Titusville. Blue Heron is a wonderful example of how a modern necessity can be both birder-friendly and an area-wide economic asset! (This was all the result of a little creative thinking and a relatively small grant from the State). Upon arrival, a family of Sandhill Cranes greeted us from the parking lot. Other notable sightings included American Bittern, King Rail, Caspian Tern, and Sedge Wren.

To the south, where Brevard and Indian River Counties meet, is Sebastian Inlet State Recreation Area (Florida’s most heavily visited state park). This is a popular fishing location, replete with fish-cleaning tables (which Brown Pelicans, Wood Storks, etc., view as bird feeders). The day we visited, about twenty Wood Storks patrolled the area as fisherman cleaned their catches. But our best bird was a Purple Sandpiper, a rare find this far south (although it often winters at Fort Clinch State Park). It also allowed me to partially repay Laurilee’s hospitality as it was a life bird for her.

I showed Laurilee another life bird (Lesser Black-backed Gull, a regular winter species along Florida’s central Atlantic coast) on February 26, 2001 at Smyrna Dunes Park in nearby Volusia County. Smyrna Dunes has a well maintained, two mile, wheel-chair accessible boardwalk traversing the dunes immediately south of Ponce Inlet. In addition to numerous sea, beach, wading, and shorebirds, many Gopher Tortoises are present (whose large burrows provide shelter for a multitude of other species). Side trails meander through trees and shrubs, and can provide excellent birding during migration.

Another fine East Section site is Jetty Park at Port Canaveral. The beach can be good for Black Skimmers and Royal Terns, especially early in the morning when large flocks often roost just above the high tide line. (In late October 2001, Sabine’s, Great Black-backed, and Lesser Black-backed Gulls were found here.) The boat lock, a couple hundred yards inland, often provides intimate views of Brown Pelicans, Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Double-crested Cormorants, Wood Storks, etc.; and the surrounding trees are used by many migrants.

The remaining sections of The Great Florida Birding Trail are still in the planning stages. Anyone can nominate a site, which is then evaluated for its birding, ability to handle birders, accessibility, maintenance support, educational significance, ecological distinction, and local economic impact. You can follow the nomination/evaluation processes on The Trail’s web-site.

No one can be certain which sites will be included in the remaining sections, but three obvious choices are: “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, National Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, and Everglades National Park. (Brashears agrees: “While the Birding Trail hasn't reached these parts of the state yet, it would be a crime not to include them.”)

“Ding” Darling NWR, on Sanibel Island west of Fort Myers, is a birder’s paradise. In winter waterfowl are usually abundant, in migration shorebirds and warblers can abound, and present all year are many waders and other water birds. If you’re lucking enough to visit during the breeding season, look for Osprey feeding young on a roadside nest platform. And if you are truly fortunate, as was I last April, you may happen upon a calling Mangrove Cuckoo sitting beside the road! 

Another amazing aspect of “Ding” Darling is the blase' attitude of its birds. Nowhere else have I seen Yellow-crowned Night Herons feeding so close to so many birders! Equally amazing is to be within a few feet from a Reddish Egret performing its “drunken sailor” fishing technique. But stay alert, you never know when a Pileated Woodpecker may fly across the road or a Black-whiskered Vireo start singing.

Before leaving Sanibel, a trip to the west end of its sister island, Captiva, is well worth taking, especially during migration or if Magnificent Frigatebirds are flying!

South of Fort Myers and east of I-75 is Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, one of National Audubon’s premier refuges. A 2.25 mile boardwalk provides entry to an otherwise inaccessible, and truly magnificent, variety of habitats including its Cypress Swamp with trees reaching 125 feet tall. Last April I had Barred Owl, Red-headed Woodpecker (flying over the parking lot), Cape May, Prothonotary, and Hooded Warblers, and an incubating Swallow-tailed Kite (courtesy of a Sanctuary volunteer with a pre-positioned spotting scope). But the highlight involved other species:

Spring 2001 was exceptionally dry, as had been the prior two years. An American Alligator, as is the habit of this species, had dug a hole concentrating the nearby water. While the ‘gator dozed on one side of its hole, an adult Little Blue Heron hunted the other side of it. Suddenly, the Little Blue lurched forward, barely in time to avoid being pounced upon by a Red-shouldered Hawk!

Everglades National Park is one of America’s great natural treasures. Not only does it cover the entire southern tip of peninsular Florida, it also preserves what’s left of the once uninterrupted “river of grass” that slowly flows from Lake Okeechobee into Florida Bay.

My favorite birding site in Everglades NP is the Anhinga Trail, a half mile boardwalk at Royal Palm Hammock just inside the Park’s main entrance. As its name implies, Anhingas are common, often nesting surprisingly close to the boardwalk. Check the egrets carefully as the white form of the Great Blue Heron (the “Great White Heron”) occurs here. Double-crested Cormorants like to perch on the railing (often approachable to within a few feet!). American Alligators abound below the boardwalk, an area also worth checking for Purple Gallinules, Least Bitterns, Green Herons, and the like. When you spot one, position yourself ahead of the bird and let it approach you. If you remain very quiet and motionless, you may be rewarded with great views as these usually secretive birds emerge from the deeper shadows. Also keep an eye overhead as Swallow-tailed Kites (summer) and Short-tailed Hawks (winter) occur here.

Regardless of which sites are included in the remaining sections, The Great Florida Birding Trail already unlocks much of the State’s cornucopia of birding delights while demonstrating to local business owners the bottom line advantages of keeping Florida bird-rich and birder-friendly. The Trail also provides entre to Florida’s other wildlife wonders, such as its native trees and wildflowers, reptiles, butterflies, and dragonflies. So what’s not to like? (And if you see Laurilee, tell her Mike sent you.)

Mike Hannisian

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