Southwest Florida birding is nothing short of fantastic! Warning: you may want to book a plane ticket after reading this article. There is a huge variety of species and more often than not you can get really close to the birds you are photographing. The birds in Florida tend to be big and in your face! And that’s just the low hanging fruit – if you know the right spots there are bird species to please every birder.
My experience in SW Florida is from December-March, so that’s the time of the year I’ll be referring to. As an added bonus, the weather is fantastic there at this time of year – not too hot, but much much warmer than up north during winter!
Endless Photographic Opportunities of Herons, Ibises, Egrets, Spoonbills and Storks
In southwest Florida, these birds are everywhere! Around Fort Myers, where I stay when I go to Florida, there are pools of fresh water everywhere including along roadsides, at outlet malls and in every gated community. With so much habitat around, you don’t have to go to the beach – you can just head out the door and these large waders will find you. The best part is, unlike up north, these birds aren’t very shy so you can actually get close enough for decent photographs.
The most common large waders you can expect to see and photograph are:
Little Blue Heron
Yellow-crowned Night Heron
Black-crowned Night Heron
Snowy Egret aka “Golden Slippers”
You may also come across a Reddish Egret.
Southwest Florida Birding: Location, Location, Location!
SW Florida has so many amazing birding hotspots, I’m not going to attempt to cover them all here. But, I will share with you a few of my favourites and what you can expect to see.
Sanibel Island and J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge
Birds aside, Sanibel island is a must-do on any traveler’s SW Florida list. It’s beautiful with white sandy beaches, crystal blue waters, palm trees and an amazing variety of shells. I love it!
Ding Darling NWR.
When on the island, Ding Darling is THE place to check out wildlife and birds. You enter the park and take a drive down Wildlife Drive where you can stop at various places and check out the bird life. Low tide is the time to visit as you will have shorebirds and waders galore! If you’re lucky a Magnificent Frigatebird will fly overhead, Roseate Spoonbills will be feeding on the flats and there will be numerous American White Pelicans.
Gopher Tortoises. Mangrove Tree Crabs and of course Alligators are other cool things you’re likely to see.
Check Refuge opening hours as it’s currently closed on Fridays.
If you want to get up close and personal with shorebirds then head to one of Sanibel’s many beaches. It can get pretty busy on Sanibel, so which beach you choose is often dependent on where you can find a parking spot. I love how in SW Florida you get within feet of shorebirds (compared to up north where you’re either looking in a scope or incredibly lucky to see one close-up).
My best tip is just to walk up and down the beach along the shoreline and you will almost definitely see something!
Bunche Beach Preserve
Another awesome spot for shorebirds is Bunche Beach which is on the mainland just before you get on the causeway to Sanibel. It’s also much less busy and more of a “hidden gem” type of beach. Head there at low tide and prepare to be amazed at what you’ll see! Plovers, Black Skimmers, Egrets and other shorebirds are some of what you can expect.
Harns Marsh Preserve
Once you’ve had your fill of beaches, head inland to discover more of southwest Florida’s birding delights. This marsh in Lehigh Acres is an awesome place to see Limpkin, Snail Kite and other marsh birds. Lehigh is an area that was badly hit by the foreclosure crisis so this marsh is definitely off the beaten track. It is slowly becoming a more known birding hotspot and I highly recommend that you check it out as part of your Southwest Florida birding experience.
You park off 38th street and then walk through the gates into the preserve. There aren’t any washrooms or facilities – just awesome nature! Early morning or dusk are the best times to visit.
Keep your eyes peeled overhead for glimpses of a Snail Kite passing over. Check the tops of reeds for Limpkins and Bitterns perching or flying low over the marsh. Look for ducks in the open water. And if you’re lucky there will be Sandhill Cranes nearby.
Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and Western Kingbirds
A really great spot for consistent and close-up views of Scissor-tails and Western Kingbirds is on the side of Church Road in Hendry County. It’s about a 40 minute drive from Fort Myers and is out past Harns Marsh, so you could hit up both in one day. If you’re lucky you may also see a Crested-Caracara.
From Fort Myers, take the 82 east towards Immokalee. Make a left turn on Church Road, continue along the road and then make a right at the stop sign. When you get to a canal, stop your car and scour the fence and electric wires in the area for flycatchers.
Six-Mile Cypress Slough Preserve
You can’t go birding in SW Florida without checking out a boardwalk through a nature preserve. This is the quintessential southwest Florida birding experience. Plus, the boardwalk allows you to get close to nature which makes for excellent photographs!
If you’re short on time and don’t want to venture out of Fort Myers, Six-Mile Cypress is an excellent option. You can walk the whole boardwalk in about an hour, longer if you stop to take lots of photographs.
This is a good place to tick more of those large wading birds off your list, as well as having the chance to look for passerines such as a Carolina Wren and Tufted Titmouse as well as woodpeckers such as the Red-bellied and Pileated. You will also be getting up close and personal with alligators, turtles and other Florida specialties.
The boardwalk is open dawn until dusk. Heading there just before dusk can be an awesome experience where you can view hundreds of large waders coming in to roost.
Other Top Birding Spots
Want more southwest Florida birding? While in the Fort Myers area, I’d also recommend checking out the Burrowing Owls in Cape Coral and Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary for passerines including the Painted Bunting.
What are your favourite SW Florida birding hotspots? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below ↓