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Birds and Birders Flock to "Florida's Beach"
Florida’s St. Petersburg-Clearwater is home to varied display of migratory birds.

Posted Thursday, April 20, 2006

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TIERRA VERDE, Fla. – North America is blessed with many terrific birding sites but if there were only one Birding Capital of America, Florida’s St. Petersburg-Clearwater area could make a strong case for the title.

Little Pinellas County, halfway down the Florida peninsula and nestled between the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay, checks off more than 375 different species--residents, winter snowbirds, and migrants--including notable populations of birds listed as endangered, threatened or of special concern. They include the American Oystercatcher, Least Tern, Snowy Plover, Black Skimmer, Peregrine Falcon, Merlin, Cooper’s Hawk, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Reddish Egret, Barred Owl and Black Crowned Night Heron.

Its wide variety of saltwater, freshwater and brackish habitats also contributes to the strong populations and diversity of species. A partial list includes mangrove forests, lagoons, mud flats, oyster bars, sand beaches and dunes, pine flatwoods, oak scrub, ponds and wetlands.

Bird watchers, too, have a variety of “habitats” from which to observe and photograph their favorite subjects: There are dozens of parks and preserves with observation platforms, beaches, boardwalks and nature trails. For example, just down the road from Tierra Verde is Fort DeSoto Park, an 1,136-acre gulf, bay and backcountry park at the mouth of Tampa Bay that hosts 280 different species in a year’s time.

Dunedin is gateway to another popular viewing venue to the north, Honeymoon Island State Park, celebrated as a premier stopover and wintering area for migrating shorebirds. There are numerous freshwater-oriented parks as well such as Sawgrass Lake Park (Alligators, anyone?) in Pinellas Park and Boyd Hill Nature Preserve in St. Petersburg.

Mild winter temperatures and lots of sunshine (361 sunny days every year) are nice bonuses for viewers and viewees. The city of St. Petersburg holds the Guinness record for the most consecutive days of sunshine, 768.

Regular sightings are common much of the year for such species as the Brown Pelican, Magnificent Frigatebird, Yellow Crowned Night Heron, Mottled Duck, Wood Stork, Osprey, Red-tailed Hawk, Limpkin, Killdeer, Least Sandpiper, Belted Kingfisher, Pileated Woodpecker, Piping Plover and Northern Flicker. Pinellas County is believed to have more Bald Eagle nests than most other parts of the state, and Florida is second only to Alaska in numbers of eagles.Biogeographical Hot Spots

Experts attribute the county’s wide diversity of bird species in part to its favorable geographic location. H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D., director of the county’s Environmental Lands Division, notes that three environmental/climatic zones--temperate, sub-tropic, and Caribbean biogeographical hot spot—all overlap Pinellas County. Consequently, in one location, serious birders may spot species common to all three zones.

Pinellas County Park Naturalist Michael McGoff concurs. “Location, location, and location” are the three main reasons why birds like Pinellas County real estate, said McGoff. “We are located on a peninsula between the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay and well-positioned geographically as a refueling station for migrating birds and a major wintering area for many of these migratory species."

Professional birding photographers praise another ingredient, the exceptionally colorful Florida light that enhances their wildlife images with rich orange and red tones at first morning light and early evening. Nirvana to a birding photographer is a Reddish Egret in breeding colors in the foreground and a Gulf of Mexico sunset in the background.

While there is no such thing as one and only one Birding Capital of America some serious birders and birding photographers unofficially convey the title on Pinellas County’s Fort DeSoto Park at the mouth of Tampa Bay. Avian photographer Jason Hahn of calls Fort DeSoto Park “one of those places that borders on the magical…a photographer’s playground.”

Birding photographer and lecturer Arthur Morris calls it “one of those rare places where you might encounter great bird photography on any given day of the year.” His—shows his exceptional pictures of Fort DeSoto Park terns and gulls in breeding stages, dark and white phase reddish egrets, Forster’s terns, long-billed curlews and more.

In fact, the county has dozens of city, county and state nature parks and preserves from which to observe and photograph birds and other wildlife. Many are also highlighted on The Great Florida Birding Trail and each seems to offer its own birding specialties:

  • Fort DeSoto Park, Tierra Verde. More than 1,100 acres with a variety of habitat shelter everything from the Reddish Egret and Roseate Spoonbill to wintering shorebirds like the Whimbrel and Sandpiper. The April arrival of songbirds--orioles, waxwings, grosbeaks, tanagers, warblers, indigo buntings--is a major event. Headquarters for migrating birds and birders is the huge mulberry tree just east of the parking lot for the Bay Pier. To quote one birder with good binoculars, “Hey everybody, over here, I’ve got a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak with berry juice running down her chest.” Excitement? Yes.
  • Egmont Key. A passenger ferry from Fort DeSoto Park crosses the mouth of Tampa Bay to Egmont Key, the barrier island location of Egmont Key State Park and National Wildlife Refuge. Here visitors have solid opportunities to observe listed species like the Wood Stork, Roseate Spoonbill, Bald Eagle, Osprey, Brown Pelican, American Oystercatcher and Least Tern. Sharp-eyed visitors may also see herons, waterfowl, hawks, kites, falcons, flycatchers, swallows, warblers, cardinals and grosbeaks, sandpipers, plovers, gulls, terns and skimmers.
  • Brooker Creek Preserve east of Palm Harbor features a rustic hiking trail through upland flatwoods with kestrels and turkeys and freshwater marshes with wading birds and sandhill cranes. This 8,000-acre preserve is home to 133 species of migratory birds and is accredited as an Important Bird Education Area by the American Bird Conservancy.
  • John Chesnut, Sr. Park on the eastern shore of Lake Tarpon has nature trails, boardwalk and an observation tower from which to view songbirds in migration as well as wading limpkins and other shorebirds on its cypress shoreline.
  • Honeymoon Island State Park west of Dunedin has two birding trails, a barrier island beach, and two observation decks. Osprey Trail, through a slash pine forest, is good for observing migrating songbirds. Paul Trunk, president of Clearwater Audubon Society who also guides visiting birders, calls attention to Honeymoon Island State Park as a premier stopover and wintering area for migrating shorebirds.


  • Caladesi Island State Park, next door to Honeymoon Island and accessible only by boat, shelters wintering shorebird species like the Red Knot and Piping Plover as well as breeders like the American Oystercatcher.
  • Hammock Park on the Dunedin mainland is a unique 75-acre natural park with five miles of nature trails and an observation platform. It hosts tri-colored herons in warm months and hosts a variety of wading birds throughout the year. Its Fern Trail is excellent for viewing fall migrants.
  • Sand Key Park at Clearwater Beach features a salt marsh with viewing benches where herons, Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Storks and cormorants nest and feed. The park has nine boardwalks leading to the beach, a good spot for spotting loons just offshore and Simipalmated Plovers and American Oystercatchers.
  • John R. Bonner Nature Park near Indian Rocks Beach is noted for Hooded Warblers and Hermit Thrushes.
  • Boca Ciega Millennium Park near Seminole has a tower from which you usually spot Wood Storks, upland birds, birds of prey, shore birds and, in the winter, White Pelicans.
  • Sawgrass Lake Park, in an unincorporated area just north of St. Petersburg, has boardwalks and trails from which to search for Blackburnian warblers and view little blue herons, wood storks and mottled ducks. Sawgrass Lake Park, 400 acres in size, allows people to walk through one of the largest maple swamps on the Gulf Coast of Florida. The park’s mile-long boardwalk and half-mile dirt trail provide opportunities to see birds, butterflies, plants and animals in their natural settings within the most densely populated county in Florida.
  • Boyd Hill Nature Preserve in St. Petersburg has 245 acres of Florida wilderness with five distinct natural habitats and miles of trails. It features a boardwalk leading to mangrove lagoons. Look for migrants, waders and diving terns as well as terrestrials like doves and downy woodpeckers.
  • Weedon Island Preserve in St. Petersburg has boardwalks through a mangrove forest plus observation decks and a tower from which to watch waders, mangrove cuckoos, herons, egrets, roseate spoonbills, kingfishers.
  • Clam Bayou Nature Park, Gulfport, Fla. Open water vistas at this park reward birders with views of ducks, loons, pelicans, herons and shorebirds.
  • Shell Key Preserve just south of Pass-A-Grille is a 1,755-acre collection of islands, including a 180-acre barrier island. Spring and summer it’s a nursery for many species. Marbled godwits and Wilson’s plovers work the flats. Peregrine falcons, dunlin and short-billed dowitchers are noted in October. Watch for magnificent frigatebirds circling overhead, black skimmers slicing the waves, brown pelicans diving on bait. Shell Key ferry leaves from Pass-a-Grille Way. Shell Key, with more than 100 different species, is ranked among the most important bird habitats in Florida.
  • Lake Seminole Park in Seminole is a designated wildlife habitat and sanctuary. Its residents include hawks, bald eagles, various waterfowl and black vultures as well as alligators, tortoises/turtles and raccoons.
  • Walsingham Park in Largo features trails through various habitats including pine flatwoods, oak scrub, ponds and wetlands. Watch for hawks, mottled ducks, herons, wrens, thrashers, warblers and butterflies such as swallowtails, sulphers, gulf fritillary, the Carolina Satyr and white peacocks.
  • A.L. Anderson Park in Tarpon Spring features a lakefront boardwalk that winds its way through a Bald Cypress forest. Gators, others and a diverse bird population make this jewel of a park worth visiting.

Pinellas County is a member of International Partners in Flight, a coalition of government and nongovernmental agencies working to stop the decline of songbirds and other migratory birds.

For more information about birding opportunities and other natural attractions available in the St. Petersburg-Clearwater area, visit or phone 877-352-3224. (Weedon Island Bird list)

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