Southwest Florida bird photography is nothing short of amazing. Birds that are difficult to get close to further north, are generally in abundance and tolerant of close-range photographs. It’s also sunny almost every day which makes for excellent photography conditions.
My parents have owned a house in Fort Myers for ten years so I am fortunate to have made frequent trips to the area. My experience is from September-April as the summer humidity is too hot for my tastes. Winter and spring are wonderful times of year to photograph herons in breeding plumage and to see some species with young. Fall is a nice time of year to avoid the traffic and crowds of the peak winter season. Whatever time of year you decide to visit, Southwest Florida will not disappoint.
Southwest Florida Bird Photography Tips
- I shoot using a Nikkor 200-500mm lens, but most lenses 300mm and above will get the job done. A superzoom camera is also great option, especially as the light is so good in Florida.
- On some days, humidity can cause lenses to fog up, especially when you take them out of an air-conditioned car. I found that storing my camera equipment in the trunk solved this issue. You can also keep the camera inside the car, but turn the air-conditioning off or keep your camera in a sealed bag or container.
- Try to get on the same level as shorebirds and herons. This means lying or sitting on the ground! Bring a towel to lie on and another to wipe off your camera. Be prepared to jump in the water after a photography session to wash the sand off. I also store my phone/keys/wallet in a Ziploc bag.
- Become familiar with local tide charts. Some beaches are only productive at low tide. Watch out for small low tides of 0.1 or 0 feet – mud flats won’t form during these small tides so you might be disappointed.
- Sunrise and sunset make for nice lighting conditions, but if you’re an afternoon birder like me you can still get good photos at other times of the day.
- In the bright sunshine, be careful of over-exposing birds with white feathers (of which there are many in Florida!)
- The Gulf Coast beaches face west, so plan to take photos from the water looking back towards the beach in the afternoon/sunset. You can also get great silhouette bird photos using the sunset as your backdrop.
Bunche Beach Preserve
Bunche Beach is my most visited southwest Florida bird photography spot. Head there at low tide, go right from the parking lot, walk down the beach and shorebirds and large waders await you in numbers. This is not a popular beach for tourists and sun-bathers, so it’s an excellent place to immerse yourself in bird photography. For the adventurous spirit, you can wade out to various sand flats during low-tide to discover new species. Just be careful of the tide coming back in!
I have photographed many species here including: Wilson’s, Piping, Snowy, Semi-palmated and Black-bellied Plovers, Western Sandpiper, Red Knot, Short-billed Dowitcher, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Reddish Egret, Snowy Egret, Tri-colored Heron, Peregrine Falcon, Black Skimmer, Brown Pelican and Osprey.
Search the foliage at the back of the beach for passerines (especially during migration). I have photographed Prairie Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and others here.
Parking costs $2/hour and is available at the end of John Morris Road.
Another Southwest Florida favourite, Sanibel is a beautiful place to visit and a fantastic backdrop for bird photos. There are many great spots for photography on the island so plan for a whole day outing here (or multiple half days!). Be warned that traffic can be heavy getting onto and driving across the island.
There is a $6 toll for cars crossing the bridge to Sanibel.
Here are some of my favourite photography spots on the island:
J.N. Ding Darling NWR
Take a drive down Wildlife Drive and stop to see the bird-life on either side of the road. During low tides, many bird species are possible on the tidal flats including: American White-Pelicans (winter only), Roseate Spoonbill, Short-billed Dowitcher, Great Egret, Dunlin and Little Blue Heron. Yellow and Black-crowned Night Herons are also possible. You can sometimes see these herons roosting in the trees beside the road.
Alligators, Gopher Tortoises, Sand Fiddler and Mangrove Tree Crabs are other great subjects to photograph here.
Time your visit with a low tide during the morning, otherwise you will be shooting into the sun. I was not able to find a reliable tide chart for Ding Darling, so I recommend calling ahead. This is one Florida spot where a longer lens is useful, especially for the birds out on the tidal flats.
Closed Fridays. $5/vehicle.
Ding Darling has strict ethical guidelines for viewing and photographing wildlife. The use of flash and playback are prohibited. Click here for the full guidelines.
My usual Sanibel Island routine is Ding Darling in the morning, then lunch at a restaurant on Andy Rosse Lane in Captiva, followed by the afternoon spent on Turner or Blind Pass Beach. Parking is a challenge on Sanibel and my strategy for these two beaches is to pull into the parking lot for either and wait for someone to leave.
Once you’ve found parking, walk down the shoreline of the beach and look for groups of shorebirds, Terns or Black Skimmers resting on the sand. Keep your eyes out for Bottlenose Dolphins playing in the water near the shoreline and for Osprey, Terns and Pelicans diving for fish.
Sanibel Lighthouse & Fishing Pier
The last stop on my typical Sanibel day is to park at the Fishing Pier Parking lot on the eastern tip of the island. I check the lighthouse and fishing pier for cooperative photography subjects. Wherever there are fishermen, herons are never too far away. I’ve been able to walk right up to Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets and Reddish Egrets on or around the pier. Ospreys, Brown Pelicans, Sandwich Terns and Royal Terns are other regulars.
The area around the lighthouse is a migrant trap during spring migration.
Sanibel Island Map
Estero Island, the home of Fort Myers beach, is crammed with development (and often people). This may seem like an unusual photography destination but there are some excellent places here. I recommend checking out Bowditch Point Park, Carlos Pointe and my latest favourite discovery: Little Estero Lagoon.
Estero Island is home to one of the largest shorebird nesting colonies in Florida – exercise caution while visiting this area during nesting season.
Bowditch Point Park
This park juts out into the water and faces Bunche Beach Preserve. Black Skimmers like to rest on the beach here and it’s also a good spot to photograph Terns and Double-crested Cormorants. Check the foliage between the parking lot and the beach for passerines, especially during migration.
Turn right when you come off the causeway and head to the end of the road. There is public parking here and easy access to the point.
Little Estero Lagoon
I only discovered the lagoon on my most recent visit and it was my most productive photography location! I photographed Magnificent Frigatebirds, Ruddy Turnstones, Least Sandpipers, Willets, American Oystercatchers, Short-billed Dowitchers, Reddish, Great and Snowy Egrets, Great Blue Herons and more. Check both the lagoon and the tidal pool that forms beside the beach during low tide.
There is no public parking for Little Estero Lagoon. Most people park in the strip mall just past and across the road from the Wyndham Garden hotel and cut through the hotel’s parking lot to reach the lagoon.
Visit during a low tide at sunset or sunrise for the best results. The beautiful lighting at these times will reflect off the water and make for amazing photographs.
You can access Carlos Pointe from Little Estero Lagoon by walking southeast down the beach. You can also park across the bridge at the north parking lot of Lover’s Key State Park. Look for a variety of shorebirds, including Sanderlings, Willets, American Oystercatchers and Wilson’s, Snowy, Semi-palmated, Piping and Black-bellied Plovers.
Map of Estero Island
I discovered Marco Island on my most recent trip to Florida and I fell in love with this spot! Despite being the area with the worst hurricane damage, it was also one of the most beautiful places I visited.
Visit this beach at low tide for beautiful rugged views and a plethora of shorebird and heron species. There is one caveat – you have to wade across a lagoon to get to the beach! Your other option is to take a twenty-minute detour around the lagoon, but in the Florida heat, wading is your easiest option. A lot of the bird life is in the lagoon anyway, so you’re going to be in the water either way.
I photographed American Avocet, Greater Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitcher, Reddish Egret, Osprey, Little Blue Heron, Ruddy Turnstone and more here. It’s another spot where you can see five Plover species. Roseate Spoonbills are a possibility.
I have photographed the Burrowing Owls in Cape Coral on numerous occasions, but after discovering Marco Island on a recent trip I think I like it better! Especially as you can combine the outing with a trip to Tigertail Beach.
The owls are located in empty lots beside the houses on Lamplighter Drive. Drive around the neighborhood looking for roped off areas with little wooden crosses staked in the grass. At any give time, only a few owls will likely be out of their burrows, so be patient and scan the ground beside the crosses for signs of movement.
It is strongly advised to maintain a distance of 15-20 feet when photographing these owls and not to stay for an extended period of time. Their numbers are sadly declining and there is a concern owls are abandoning burrows that receive too many visitors.
Marco Island Map – use satellite view for Tigertail Beach
Other Southwest Florida Bird Photography Spots
All of my favourite photography spots are along the coastline because everything is so close and easy to photograph. But, there is more to Florida than its beach-dwelling species. Here are some other spots worth considering:
Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
A great spot to see passerines such as warblers, vireos & woodpeckers, wading birds and raptors such as Red-shouldered Hawk and Barred Owl. Check for Painted Bunting on the feeder near the entrance.
Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve
Alligators, turtles, wading birds and passerines. Visit at dusk to see thousands of heron species flying-in to roost.
Visit this marsh for Florida specialties like Snail Kite, Limpkin and Purple Gallinule. Photography can be a challenge as birds are often distant, but there are amazing Sandhill Crane photography opportunities here.
Felda Church Road, East of Lehigh Acres
Off the beaten track, but worth the drive for photography opportunities of Western Kingbird (winter only), Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (winter only) and Crested Caracara. Look for flycatchers on the wires and fences where the road crosses a canal.
Cape Coral is a great spot to photograph Burrowing Owls, Monk Parakeets and Florida Scrub-Jays. Look for Burrowing Owls and Monk Parakeets near the baseball diamond on Pelican Boulevard and Florida Scrub-Jays in the empty lots on NW 25th Terrace, NW 26th Street and NW 26th Terrace.
Venice Area Audubon Rookery
This is a premiere photography destination for herons during breeding season. Visit this spot between December-May for photographs of herons building nests, courting or raising chicks. I haven’t visited this spot since getting a DSLR, but it’s high on my list next time I’m in Florida during nesting season.
Southwest Florida Bird Photography Album
Photographs taken at my favourite Southwest Florida bird photography spots.
What are your favourite Southwest Florida bird photography spots? Leave a comment below ↓