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A Birding Hotspot – St. Marks Wildlife Refuge

Dear Bird Folks,

I’m sure you have been to many of Florida’s birding hot spots (the Everglades, Sanibel Island, etc.), but I’m wondering if you have ever birded Florida’s Panhandle. I’m going there on business next month and would like to know if I should take my binoculars with me.

– Justin, Delmar, NY


Of course, Justin,

Of course you should take your binoculars. You should have your binoculars with you wherever you go. Not only will you need them if you see a strange bird, but having binoculars around your neck makes everyone else around you nervous. I like doing that. People who don’t know better think anyone carrying binoculars is either a spy or a pervert, or worse, a birder. Spies and perverts make people anxious for obvious reasons but birders make folks uncomfortable because they’re afraid we are going to start telling them about all the birds we’ve seen. Most people would rather hear about a fat guy’s gallbladder operation than have to listen to one of our days spent looking at birds. It’s their loss. I’ve only birded Florida’s Panhandle twice. The first time was twenty years ago and the second was fairly recently. I’m happy to report that not much has changed in those twenty years. While most of Florida’s other birding spots have become surrounded by repetitive shopping centers and bankrupt housing developments, the Panhandle seems to be one place that time has forgotten…or has chosen to ignore.

On my latest visit to the Panhandle, I stayed in downtown Tallahassee, which will probably make most birders cringe. Birders are like starving artists; they don’t think they are truly birding if they aren’t totally miserable. Birders think that staying in a place with indoor plumbing is excessive. Not me. My idea of roughing it is when the doorman forgets my name. But on this particular trip the joke was on me. I thought Tallahassee, being Florida’s capital, would be a fun place to be at night. Not even close. I’ve seen road kill with more of a pulse than this city has. You know it’s a dull town when the local Starbucks closes at 11:00 AM. Really. After spending the night in the slumbering state capital, I was happy to get up and head to the swamps each morning. At least I could find some life there.

The first place I’d recommend is St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge. It’s only about a half hour drive from Tallahassee and you won’t meet any traffic on your way. Remember, the Panhandle is not like the rest of Florida. In addition to having a bird book and binoculars, make sure you have some cash with you. The refuge has an entry fee of $5.00 but no one was there to take my money or make change. I had to slip the exact amount into a weird pipe in the ground and trust that it found its way into the right hands. My first stop was at the visitor’s center. I was hoping to find someone who could tell me about recent bird sightings, but the lone person there was an older lady and the only thing she wanted to tell me about was her grandkids. You should stop there anyhow. There is a short walk around a pond in back of the visitor’s center and there were actually quite a few birds to see there.

The refuge offers several other productive trails, plus a long wildlife drive where you can see a fair number of birds with out having to get out of your car. Sweet! I’m not going to list the birds you are likely to see at this refuge because every birder has his or her own idea of what a “good” bird is. However, you are going to see plenty of birds. The refuge’s checklist contains over 300 species, which range from waterfowl, to shorebirds, to raptors, to warblers and lots of sparrows (good luck with those guys).

Another good birding spot that is even closer to Tallahassee is Wakulla Springs State Park. This is the lazy birder’s dream. There are a few short trails in the park, but the best way to see birds is by going on one of their guided boat trips. Usually going on any kind of public tour creeps me out, but this trip wasn’t too bad. To begin with it only cost eight bucks and was only forty-five minutes long. Even I can put up with strangers for that amount of time. The other good thing was that the guide was a very knowledgeable park ranger and not a volunteer talking about grandchildren. The boat brought us exceptionally close to an assortment of herons and ducks, plus the obligatory gator and at least a dozen manatees. The manatees were so close that I thought about hopping out of the boat and riding one, but the look in the ranger’s and the gator’s eyes convinced me not to try it.

I visited some other birding spots in the Panhandle, Justin, but they weren’t as productive. One park, which was close to the city, seemed to have more hobos in it than birds, so I got out of there quickly. At least I thought they were hobos. Now that I think about, they were so sketchy looking they may have been birders. OMG! Now I’m really glad I got out of there.