Bird Watching

Cape San Blas Bird Watching and other local areas


Bird Watching… Bird watching is a common outdoor activity in the Florida Panhandle and can be enjoyed in Cape San Blas from fall to spring. Black bellied plover, snowy plover, geese, royal tern, American kestrel, are some of the birds you can observe while on a bird watching expedition. Birds can attract your attention in any part of the Cape. However, if you specifically want to spot a certain type of bird,

St Joseph State Park would be the place to go. Early morning is a good time for this activity. As a coastal barrier peninsula, St. Joseph provides excellent opportunities for bird watching; over 240 species have been sighted in the park.

St. Joseph Bay Buffer and Aquatic Preserves Day Trips to St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve Fall Wildflowers; St. Joseph Bay Aquatic Preserve – Boat and Seagrass Wading Tours; Birding trips to St. Joseph Peninsula and nighttime astronomy program. All Proceeds to Benefit Friends of St. Joseph Bay Preserves (501.c.3 Non profit organization). St. Joseph Bay Preserves Center, 3915 Hwy 30-A (Approximately 5 miles south of Port St. Joe). Call 850-229-1797 for more information. Location St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve and Aquatic Preserve; St. Joseph Peninsula Cape San Blas has a well earned reputation for rewarding bird watching. Your property owner can direct you to choice viewing areas. Birding seasons are fall through spring. Enjoy Northern Gannet, White and Brown Pelicans, Cormorants, Herons, Egrets, Geese, Blue Winged Teal, Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, American Kestral, Black Bellied Plover, Snowy Plover, Wilson?s Plover, Semiplated Plover, Sanderling, Dunlin, Sandpipers, assorted gulls, Royal Tern, Forster’s Tern, Caspian Tern.

ST George Island and Franklin County Serious birders often are described as compulsive and competitive, but in reality, the thrill of an exceptional fallout; adding a mega-rarity to your life list or an unexpected, first-record sighting are emotional experiences that beg to be shared with fellow birding enthusiasts. With one of the highest bio diversities in the country, hundreds of thousands of acres of easily-accessible public lands, a prime coastal location, mild weather year-round and a plethora of rare and unusual species, Franklin County compels birders to come, explore and share. From a national perspective, only Texas and California have larger bird populations than Florida, and the panhandle region of Florida has the highest species diversity statewide.

In Franklin County, many geographic and ecological factors contribute to the area’s diverse resident and migratory bird populations. A staggering 87 percent of the county is protected land either state or federal parks and wildlife preserves. This factor alone guarantees unprecedented public access to prime birding areas such as St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge, St. George Island State Park, Tate’s Hell State Forest, the Apalachicola National Forest and the Apalachicola National Estuaries Research Reserve. Geographically, Franklin County is bordered to the south by the Gulf of Mexico. Four barrier islands, including St. George Island, rim the southern boundaries of the county and form a barrier between the Gulf and the mainland. They provide the first landfall for migratory birds as they head north across the Gulf from Mexico to America during spring migration. This factor also influences fall migration on St. George Island, as many birds will use the island as their takeoff location prior to setting off across the Gulf en route to Mexico and South America.

The Apalachicola River provides a migratory landmark for many birds on their continued journey north. The river, which flows north to south through the county, continues another 430 miles north (as the Chattahoochee River) and another 350 miles north (as the Flint River). Additionally, as the river meets the gulf, it provides the freshwater source for Apalachicola Bay, one of the last pristine estuary systems in the northern hemisphere, and one of the most important bird habitats in the southeastern United States. Birding in Franklin County is a year-round event; however, the spring and fall migration periods are notable for both species diversity and sheer numbers of birds. Spring songbird migration, in particular, can be exhilarating. According to Alan Knothe, an education and training expert for the Apalachicola National Estuaries Research Reserve and an avid local birder, spring and fall migrations bring colorful songbirds including warblers, buntings, tanagers, grosbeaks, vireos and more. (Online links to local state parks and wildlife preserves for detailed birding checklists can be found at the end of this document). Some of the county?s best locations to find migratory songbirds are

St. George Island (especially around the youth camp area at St. George Island State Park, where a migrant trap is located) and Bald Point State Park on Alligator Point. Spring songbird migration peaks around mid to late April, and it?s worth noting that these birds migrate back through the area in fall, giving birders a second chance to view them, with peak fall viewing from the beginning to the middle of October. Knothe describes predicting fallout as an art form. Birders have many tools and methods at their disposal to assist with predictions, and these include watching for weather conditions with winds out of the south at dusk that change to winds out of the north during the middle of the night. Since many songbirds migrate at night, these conditions support their Gulf crossing and offer a tailwind to push them along after they take off from the Yucatan peninsula. If the birds then encounter a northern front about halfway through their Gulf of Mexico crossing, they then must fly into a headwind for the second half of their journey, and are exhausted upon reaching shore where they literally fall from the sky. These weather conditions can produce particularly large numbers of birds. Knothe notes that rainstorms are another predictor, as they can bring down lots of birds. Additionally, birds can be seen on satellite and radar as they cross the gulf, predicting large arrivals. One website that uses radar to track bird migration over Florida from March-May and from August-October can be found at¬†¬†Migration events and vagrant and rarity sightings also tend to spread via word-of-mouth among birding enthusiasts and regional birding groups, but news spreads the quickest through online Florida bird list servers. (A reference list of Florida bird list server links follows at the end of this document). Many shorebirds also are resident or migrate through and to Florida. Because the shorebird migration period is long–beginning in March, peaking in April and ending in June for spring migration; and beginning in July, peaking in August and September and ending in October for fall migration birders have many opportunities to see a great variety of species including oystercatchers (resident), plovers, sandpipers and many more.

Great shorebird locations include St. Vincent Island, a 12,300-acre, undeveloped national wildlife refuge located 22 miles southwest of Apalachicola and accessible by boat, and Bald Point State Park at Alligator Point. The peninsula at Bald Point State Park and Bird Island, as viewed with a scope from Battery Park in Apalachicola, also are excellent locations to see migrating white pelicans. Franklin County also provides exceptional raptor viewing opportunities. Ospreys are here year-round; eagles and kestrels are winter residents who return to the area during fall migration. Other falcons, particularly the peregrine falcon and the Merlin, occur only in very small numbers during winter and are best viewed during fall migration. Kites, both Mississippi and swallow-tailed, can be seen from the spring until the end of summer, at which time they migrate back to their preferred wintering grounds. Hot, sunny days often provide the perfect hot air thermal currents that raptors rely on to soar and glide with minimal wing flapping. These birds prefer to avoid flying over large bodies of water and instead will follow the shoreline as they migrate. When reaching the end of a land peninsula, they often bottle up and can be seen circling high in the sky. St. Joe Peninsula is an excellent and easily accessible raptor viewing location, and those with boat access also should check out St. Vincent Island. Additionally, St. Vincent Island is easily accessible by kayak from Indian Pass Peninsula, and ferry service to the island can be arranged from Indian Pass by calling 850/229-1065 for advance reservations.

St. Vincent Island offers nine miles of gulf shoreline for observation potential, and the island’s interior ridge and swale system provides excellent raptor habitat. Additionally, Mississippi and swallow-tailed kites breed, nest and forage along the Apalachicola River, with highest numbers from April to August. Though migratory birds are certainly a big draw, many resident birds are sought after by birders and can be viewed year-round, though sightings often are best during the breeding season. The Apalachicola National Forest contains the world’s largest population of red-cockaded woodpeckers, an endangered species. According to Knothe, The best way to find red-cockaded woodpeckers is to familiarize yourself with their call and then to listen for them. Once you hear them, head in that direction and track them down. The best time of the day to visit is at first light or near sunset as the birds will be leaving or returning to the cavity trees at these times. The best time of the year is during May when the birds are nesting. This is because they are constantly returning to the trees to care for their young. (Note: the cavity trees will be painted with white bands around the trunks.) Red-cockaded woodpeckers feed on the live pine trees by flicking off pieces of bark to get to the insects hiding underneath. Watch for falling bark and listen for light tapping noises. Knothe also notes that Bachman’s sparrow is another bird endemic to the Southeast which can be found in the Apalachicola National Forest. Since the best way to locate these birds is by listening for their song, and they sing primarily during breeding season, it’s often easiest to locate them sitting on the ends of dead branches during the months of April, May and June. Additional birds to look for in the forest during breeding season include red and white-eyed vireos; yellow-throated vireos; hooded, Kentucky, prairie, yellow-throated and Swainson’s warblers; yellow-breasted chats and yellow-billed cuckoos. These birds prefer wet, swampy areas in the forest such as cypress domes, along streams and along the Apalachicola River floodplain. From April through July is prime time to observe many terns which breed and nest on the islands of Apalachicola Bay such as Bird Island, and the old causeway island leading to St. George Island. Because the islands are not accessible to the public during breeding season, best viewing opportunities are from the mainland while birds are foraging. Birders can expect to see brown pelicans, gulls, terns, skimmers, and American oystercatchers, among others.

Knothe adds that St. George Island, Little St. George Island and St. Vincent Island are nesting sites for snowy plovers, primarily from April to July. He offers these words of caution to birders and interested observers who might be tempted to approach nesting birds. If you notice the bird changing its behavior or getting nervous, you are too close, and you should move back. Birds that nest on our beaches are especially vulnerable. These birds (terns and plovers) make a nest called a scrape. Many simply make an indention in the sand and then lay perfectly camouflaged eggs in the indention. It is easy to step on these eggs if one isn’t careful. If one is on the beach and terns start swooping and squawking at them, they are probably about to enter a nesting site. Move out of the area immediately, being careful where you step. Also, watch for plovers doing a broken wing display. This too is a sign you are near nests. Even flushing the parent birds temporarily form the nest is dangerous. The young or eggs are vulnerable to predators and the scorching sun the entire time the parents are away, he advises.

In the spring and summer of 2007, Franklin County was the site of a five-month survey of the Apalachicola River floodplain for ivory-billed woodpeckers conducted for the US Fish and Wildlife Service by ornithologist Dr. Todd Engstrom. Some 30 survey plots were randomly selected, and data is now being analyzed. According to Knothe, It is believed that historically the Apalachicola floodplain had a large population of ivory-billed woodpeckers. Franklin County also participates in the oldest and largest wildlife survey in the world, the Christmas Bird Count. Knothe explains that the local count, which takes place in Apalachicola each year around Christmas, provides vital data to scientists studying trends in bird populations and is now in its 14th year. Knothe coordinates the local event and also compiles the data. Our count area is a circle with a radius of seven and one-half miles with its center just off the northeast corner of St. Vincent Island. The circle is divided into seven sections, and each section is assigned to a group of two-to-four birders. The birders record every species they observe in their section and the numbers of each species found. The data is compiled and reviewed and then sent into a central data base where scientists can monitor bird populations all around North America, Knothe explained. Knothe encourages and welcomes birders at all levels of experience to participate in the count. And who knows Christmas Bird Count participants might be privileged to view a mega-raritymany of the county’s best rarity sightings have taken place in December, including a snowy owl at St. George Island State Park; a California gull at Eastpoint; and a Ross’s goose and a tropical kingbird in Apalachicola just to name a few! When recently asked about his most memorable birding day in the area, Knothe said, That’s a tough one because there have been so many great birding days in Franklin County.

Viewing the Snowy Owl out at St. George Island State Park certainly ranks high on my list. Also, the Tropical Kingbird found on the 2005 Apalachicola Bay Christmas Bird Count was very exciting. I also recall a recent birding event when I headed to St. George Island State Park on a spring afternoon when I got off work. I arrived at the youth camp in the park at about 5:00 p.m., just in time to catch the Yucatan Express. Tons of trans-Gulf migrants were falling out of the sky. Everywhere one looked, there were colorful warblers, tanagers, buntings and grosbeaks. I birded until dark, and in just those few hours and without leaving the small area of the youth campground, I had over 80 species of birds. It was quite an amazing experience, he added.

Online links to Florida bird list-servers: Birdbrains Florida Birds/Natural History

FlaBirding Florida and the Bahamas

FLORIDABIRDS-L Statewide list

SWFLBirdline Southwest Florida

North Florida, South Georgia, and South Alabama

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