The Tampa Bay watershed and its diverse habitats make the area a playground for birdwatchers year-round. Many parks, preserves and other public lands offer optimal birding opportunities.
Tampa Bay is a hot spot for migrating species that stop for refueling on their routes between North America and Central and South America. Fall migration begins in late August and extends through early November, while spring migration extends from March through mid-May. Winter is the best birding season as the bird population explodes with winged snowbirds. But don't discount summer for its abundance of shorebirds, wading birds and raptors that make Tampa Bay their year-round home.
Here's a selection of top birding spots:
Fort De Soto Park: Internationally known as one of
the premier bird watching locations in the eastern United States, Fort De Soto Park is the largest park within the Pinellas County system
consisting of 1,136 acres made up of five interconnected islands or "keys." Here you'll find sandy beaches, mangroves, wetlands, palm
hammocks, and hardwoods -- an ecosystem that harbors more than 300 species of birds. Look for migrating warblers, vireos, thrushes, flycatchers, tanagers,
orioles and many shorebirds and wading birds like reddish egret, great blue heron, great egret and snowy egret, gulls and terns.
Protected breeding areas support black skimmer, least tern and Wilson's plover. A favorite spot for avian photographers, particularly at dawn and dusk.
Shell Key Preserve: Not far from Fort De Soto Park, Shell Key is a small barrier island designated as one of the state's most important areas for shorebird nesting and wintering. A 110-acre bird preservation area has been set aside for nesting, migrating and wintering birds that arrive by the thousands annually including the American oystercatcher, least tern and black skimmer. It is only accessible by boat, kayak or a private ferry, Shell Key Shuttle from Pass-a-Grille.
Honeymoon Island State Park and Caladesi State Park: These
adjacent parks, which have both won accolades as America's top beaches, win top awards as first-rate birding territory. Honeymoon Island
is a favorite for osprey and eagle watchers who come each spring to observe nesting along the Osprey Trail. Rangers at the Nature Center
will keep you abreast of current sightings. Caladesi Island is only accessible via boat, kayak or a ferry shuttle from Honeymoon Island. But
you'll be richly rewarded with the birds found here from plovers, terns and sandpipers on the beach, to warblers, orioles and other songbirds inland.
Boyd Hill Nature Preserve: This 245-acre urban oasis in south St.
Petersburg offers 3 miles of trails and boardwalks throughout five ecosystems: hardwood hammocks, sand pine scrub, pine flatwoods,
willow marsh and lake shore. Part of the Great Florida Birding Trail, a visit to Boyd Hill Nature Preserve makes for a great family outing
where you can spot anhingas, owls, osprey and eagles. Visit the Birds of Prey Avian Center or sign up for one of the many guided nature
hikes. This is also a migration and wintering spot. Typical sightings include tufted titmouse, Coopers hawk, great horned owl, osprey,
bald eagles, limpkin, Carolina wren and even ruby throated hummingbird around the flowering plants.
Lettuce Lake Park: This county
park on the Hillsborough River just north of Tampa with its pine flatwoods and sprawling cypress swamps is a favorite for local birding field
trips. Stop by the Audubon Resource Center, operated by the Tampa Audubon Society, to learn about recent sightings; bird-watching tours
are held several times a month. In winter, a variety of warblers can be seen here, as well as year-round residents like the limpkin, little blue
heron, hawks, wild turkeys and swallow-tailed kites.
McKay Bay Nature Park: A 38-acre
refuge for nature in the heart of urban Tampa, McKay Bay is a maze of mangroves, salt marshes and mud flats that attract many species of wading
birds. A boardwalk and observation tower offer panoramic views. The park is part of the Great Florida Birding Trial.
Cockroach Bay Aquatic Preserve: This
preserve at the mouth of the Little Manatee River includes 4,800 acres of submerged land amid mangrove islands and marshland, making it a
place for paddlers and those who don't mind getting their feet wet. Remarkable for its pristine state, Cockroach Bay Preserve harbors 13 bird
species designated as endangered, threatened, rare, or of special concern. The mangrove islands within the preserve are often used by water
and shorebirds for nesting sites. Look for roseate spoonbill, little blue heron, tricolored heron, bald eagle, wood stork, brown pelican and snowy egret.
Hillsborough River State Park and Hillsborough River: Also
listed on the Great Florida Birding Trail , Hillsborough River State Park and the river that runs through it offer pleasant bird-watching in a variety of habitat
including pine flatwoods, hardwood hammock, and cypress swamp. Paddle the Flint Creek-Sargent Park stretch of the river for an Old Florida experience.
Canoe rentals available at the park.
Manatee County's many preserves offer excellent opportunities for spotting feathered friends. Start by going to www.mymanatee.org and clicking on Preserves to find locations and hours; be sure to check the Calendar of Events to find out about guided hikes and paddles which often afford peeping.
A few of our favorites:
Duette Preserve is a bird lover's paradise with over 21,000 acres and 16 trails crossing the
Manatee River in various locations. Regular spottings here include snowy egret, white ibis, belted kingfisher, Florida scrub
jay, burrowing owl and sandhill cranes. Closed to visitors during Hunt Weekends.
Emerson Point Preserve offers excellent birding along several miles of trails and via a 60 foot tall observation tower. Some 70 species of birds are reported annually.
Robinson Preserve includes
waterways to paddle, marshlands and uplands, along with hiking trails and boardwalks and a 50-foot observation tower. You'll spot shorebirds, osprey
and bald eagles. Florida scrub jays have also been spotted at the 145-acre restored ecosystem at Rye Preserve.