Bird Watcher's General Store

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Birding Western Florida

Dear Bird Folks,

I recently found an old column of yours that talked about birding in Florida. Unfortunately, the places you recommended are on the east coast. Do you have any suggestions about bird watching in the western part of the state?

– Joel, Hull, MA


You bet I do, Joel,

I received your note in early December, but I didn’t respond right away. I knew I’d be taking another birding trip to the Sunshine State in January, so I decided to make birding on the west coast a priority. See what I’m willing to do for you, Joel? Actually, I received several responses to last year’s Florida column, including some great suggestions about where I should go birding the next time I’m in Florida. Well, my son Casey and I have just returned from “next time.” We visited several of the locations folks suggested and some were really good.

On our first day in Florida we saw zero birds. We lost an entire day of birding because our flight was delayed…forever. We didn’t arrive until after dark because our good friends at Delta Airlines couldn’t find (and I’m not kidding) enough flight attendants for our flight. We had to wait for hours before they found someone who could hand out bags of peanuts. Needing a place to stay on short notice, we stopped in the peculiar town of Celebration, FL. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to this town, but it has to be the most antiseptic town in America. It makes Mayberry look like Newark. Even the picket fences had picket fences around them. But once I got past all the vanilla, my visit was fine. I got up early, found a nature trail and saw a handful of birds. Eventually though, the locals and their dogs (with some wearing matching outfits), crowded-up the trail and forced the birds and me to move on. We headed to my new favorite birding spot in all of Florida.

Halfway (-ish) between Orlando and Tampa and near the town of Lakeland is a nature preserve called the Circle B Bar Reserve. Ever hear of it? No? Me either. When someone first suggested the Circle B Bar Reserve I envisioned an old dusty field where a couple of sad cows used to live. Nope. This place is awesome. First of all, it’s free. (Sweet!) There is a lot of parking and a visitors center with restrooms, but no snack shop (darn). The trails are flat and easy to walk on. I even saw a handicapped lady who was birding while riding an electric scooter. I offered her five bucks if she’d give me a lift, but she passed on the offer. (Once again, darn.) We were there on Sunday and it was crowded with families, but the extra people didn’t seem to bother the birds or us. In three hours we saw over fifty species of birds, plus a bobcat and a massive alligator that was slightly larger than the Bismarck. The bird highlights included Bald Eagles, Roseate Spoonbills, American White Pelicans, Barred Owls and tons of Limpkins. (Limpkins aren’t very exciting birds to look at, but their name is really fun to say.) The Circle B Bar Reserve is a must for anyone birding in Florida, especially new birders. All the typical “Florida birds” can easily be seen at close range, so bring your camera, or your sketchpad. These birds are quite tame and love to pose. Also, bring snacks. (Man, I wish I had known about that ahead of time.)

East of Sarasota is a fairly new area known as the Celery Fields. While the name makes it sound like a spot where gangsters go to dump bodies, it’s actually a great birding destination. However, it’s not for everyone. Oh, there are plenty of birds to be seen, but they aren’t all the easy, readily identifiable species many people expect to see in Florida. The day we were there we saw lots of generic shorebirds and all kinds of nervous sparrows. Hardcore birders and anyone with good birding skills will love the Celery Fields, but rookies might be frustrated. Also, the place is new and many of the trails aren’t marked and there are no facilities of any kind. Until visitor improvements are finished being made, novice birders might want to try a more user-friendly place to bird. Well, unless of course they are looking for a good place to dump a body. Then it’s perfect.

The next day, after we got the celery smell off us, we went to National Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, which is totally user-friendly. This magnificent place is about thirty miles northeast of Naples and is a must for all birders. Once you recover from the $12.00 per person entry fee (whoa!), you will be treated to a wonderful visitors center, with a snack bar (thank goodness) and miles of elevated boardwalks. The boardwalks will guide you through the rich, swampy habitat that much of Florida was noted for, before the bulldozers moved in. I think most people who have ever birded in Florida are familiar with the Corkscrew Sanctuary. Therefore, I won’t spend much time talking about it except to say if you’ve ever wanted to see a Painted Bunting, this is the place to go. Just start saving up your twelve bucks now.

Like most good birding places, a lot has to do with the time of year. We stopped at several supposed “hot spots,” only to find them fairly quiet. I don’t know when you are planning to take your trip, Joel, but if it’s January, the place you should visit, above all others in western Florida, is the Circle B Bar Reserve. It’s easy to get to, has well-marked trails, good facilities, great birds, and it’s free. Just remember to bring your binoculars and some snacks. Also, be sure to avoid that Bismarck-sized gator, or you could become a snack yourself.