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Florida is known as the Sunshine State; quite aptly so because this southern state sees the sunís warm rays all year round. While most of the United States is experiencing snow, sleet and flurries during the winter months, Florida stays warm and temperate. Thus, Florida is the perfect place for northerners to escape the frigid winter, humans and our feathered friends alike.
Some of the best times to visit for birding is around the month of February to early March, when the birds are beginning their nesting routines and finding their mates. Towards the end of that time period, some birds will begin their mating rituals while others who got a head start would have already had chicks to care for. Both stages of the birdsí life cycle provide priceless photo opportunities.
Although the migratory birds flock pretty much all over the Sunshine State, Floridaís most popular birding sites are located near the mid-western region. The must see places for avid birders are:
- Orlando Wetlands
- Merritt Island
- Viera Wetlands
- Venice Rookery
For my brief, yet very fruitful visit to Florida, I was fortunate enough to visit four of the hotspots mentioned above. It was a very intensive four days of birding. Some of the areas are inaccessible by car, therefore some degree of fitness is required in order to lug ones gear around supported merely by ones two feet. Despite sustaining aches in several areas as a result, I felt it was all worth it after sifting through a good 2-3 gigabytes of images.
Three of the Hotspots in Detail:
The Orlando Wetlands Park is located in a town called Christmas, which is about a half hour drive from the Orlando International Airport. It started off as a water treatment facility that eventually turned into a wildlife sanctuary for a rich variety of birds. Pockets of small ponds with walkways encircling them make up the entire area. There is a welcome center at the park entrance with information about the wildlife and also area maps.
The Merritt Island National Wildlife Reserve is located on the Space Coast of Florida. Itís called the Space Coast because itís a mere stones throw away from the famous Kennedy Space Center (think NASA). The 140,000 acre area is home to over 500 species of wildlife. This area is especially known for housing a large number of active bald eagle and osprey nests. There is a visitorsí center, catered mostly towards avid birders. Well informed staff members at the center provide useful information such as what species are around the area and where they can be seen.
Most of the birding trails of Merritt Island are accessible by car. The most popular one being Black Point Drive, with several marked viewing points complete with information on the birds most commonly seen at each point. However, in order to see more of what Merritt Island has to offer, one should take the smaller, paved roads which lead deeper into the marshes. Some of the more popular roads are Peacockís Pocket and E. Gator Rd.
Gatorland is located in Central Florida, about 5 minutes from Kissimmee and about a half hour from the Orlando International Airport. It is a fairly popular tourist attraction, which is a lot more commercialized than the two birding spots mentioned earlier. For a fee of $20, visitors can spend as much time as they like in the park from 10am to 5pm.
As the name suggests, Gatorland is pretty much an alligator theme park, featuring alligator wrestling shows, train rides and other reptilian exhibits. However in the heart of Gatorland lies a birderís paradise, which is the Alligator/Bird breeding ground. An observation walkway with several lookout points faces a stretch of palms and other shrubs which hosts a large number of Great Egret nests. It is indeed a slight to behold. The birds at the park are rather accustomed to humans, so photographers are guaranteed to get decent shots even without using very long lenses.
Riding into the Sunset As you can see, Florida is indeed a birderís paradise. So if youíre into bird watching or avian photography, the Sunshine State is the place to be. And if you have a wife and child who donít share your passion for our feathered friends, thereís always Disney and Universal Studios to keep them occupied for hours on end. ;)
:: Great Egret Mating Sequence ::
:: Gatorland ::
:: Roseate Spoonbills ::
:: Merritt Island NWR ::
:: Orlando Wetlands ::