In Florida´s natural habitats, visitors can hardly take a step without encountering a wide variety of birds. Colorful songbirds serenade in gardens and parks, while waterbirds such as herons and storks populate the extensive wetlands. And then there is the coast, where seagulls, pelicans and other seabirds form large colonies and feast on the treasures of the ocean.
Thanks to the state´s protection efforts, vast stretches of land are not cultivated – ideal conditions for rare bird species that have long been displaced elsewhere.
Of course, not every species feels comfortable in every habitat, and some are only seasonal guests in the Sunshine State. In this article, we will introduce you to Florida´s different birds and tell you where and when you can best observe them.
Birds in Florida – Species and Distribution
From chirping songbirds and hunters of the sky to specimens that live in wetlands or off the coast – amateur ornithologists should know the following bird species in Florida:
While exploring the state’s parks, gardens and forests, you will most likely see songbirds of all colors: among them blue jays, golden finches, house finches and tanagers. Other common bird species include red-brownish American robins – as well as swallows, the lightning-fast acrobats of the sky.
If you spot a red bird with feather cap in Florida, it’s most likely the Northern Cardinale. This species lives at the edge of forests, but also in populated areas where it feasts on seeds and fruits. On nature walks, you are also likely to hear the staccato of woodpeckers. The downy woodpecker, for example, has become accustomed to the presence of humans and is now one of the most common birds in the state.
In addition, the Sunshine State is home to an endemic species that lives nowhere else in the world: the Florida Scrub-Jay. This blue-grayish, 12” bird mostly lives in light oak forests. However, you will need quite a bit of luck to see it, as the Scrub-Jay is now a rare and endangered species.
Birds of Prey
They are the undisputed rulers of the avian kingdom – lightning fast, deadly and perfectly adapted to their habitat: Florida´s birds of prey. The variety of species ranges from small falcons, merlins and sparrowhawks to the golden eagle – a colossus with a wingspan of up to 6.5 ft that prefers flat, open areas. Unmistakable due to its blue plumage and red eyes is the snail kite. This species breeds exclusively in Florida and feeds on apple snails – hence its name.
An absolute favorite among patriotic bird lovers is the bald eagle: the national symbol of the USA. With recent protection measures bearing fruit, Florida is now home to more and more breeding pairs – especially in areas with tall trees. The animals can reach a wingspan of up to 6.5 ft and are skilled fish hunters. However, they do not disdain carrion, either. Speaking of carrion: Less majestic, but equally indispensable to the ecosystem are turkey vultures. These scavengers soar high in the sky, always on the look-out for dead animals.
Florida is also home to a rather unusual bird: the burrowing owl. Originally, these small prairie dwellers are native to the Midwest. In Florida, however, they have found a new home on flat, undeveloped plots where they can dig their nests in the soil.
Florida’s lakes, rivers and swamps are home to many kinds of plants, fish and insects. Of course, this abundance also attracts larger animals such as waterbirds. These feathered longnecks are perfectly adapted to their habitat – which becomes obvious when you look at their beaks: Spoonbills sieve the water with their flat bills, storks strike at lightning speed, and the curved tool of ibises is perfect for foraging in the mud. Grey herons are also a common sight – not only in swamps, but also near canals or on golf courses. In addition, the Sunshine State is home to various types of ducks and coots.
You need a good amount of luck if you want to see flamingos. Although the pink birds are a heraldic animal of Florida, they are only seen in the extreme south of the state, as human impact has caused their population to shrink. Due to their attractive feathers, great egrets were also hunted to extinction in the 19th century. Fortunately, the population has been able to recover in recent years.
Long coastlines and the change of tides attracts many shore birds such as plovers, snipes and oystercatchers that are looking for food in the surf. Black-headed gulls fill the air with their characteristic laughs and skimmers fly close to the surface, while frigate birds can be observed high above ground. These “pirates of the sky” often use their agility to relieve other birds of their food.
Pelicans are another common sight on the coast – especially in places where fishermen are at work. Sometimes, these clever birds even wait for tourists to drop their snacks. While brown pelicans can be seen in the state all year round, white pelicans only come to Florida during the winter.
Bird Watching in Florida – the best Places
Whether on walks through the forest, boat trips off the coast or in swamps and mangroves – if you want to watch birds in Florida, you are spoilt for choice. In the following section, we will present the best places for sightings:
The state’s largest wetland stretches for 2.300 square miles from Lake Okeechobee in the north to the south coast, and is home to more than 380 bird species. Not only waterfowl such as herons, storks, pelicans, ibises and spoonbills can be spotted here. Dense forests provide a refuge for snail kites, mangrove cuckoos and short-tailed buzzards. In addition, the Everglades are a perfect place to see rare pink flamingos. These birds mainly live in shallow lagoons and inlets on the coast. Flamingos are still a rare sight, but the population has been recovering in recent year. The same is true for the American wood stork that has long been threatened with extinction and is now making its comeback in the Everglades.
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
This nature reserve near Naples features a wide variety of landscapes: from mangroves, upland and flooded meadows to the largest cypress forest in North America. Not surprisingly, there is a huge variety of bird species. Silver and grey herons stoke through the water, the drumming of woodpeckers echoes through the forest, owls populate the treetops, and in some years, more than 1,000 wood storks breed in the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. All these birds can be observed from the comfort of a wooden boardwalk.
The entire island of Cayo Costa in Southwest Florida is protected – and thus provides ideal conditions for a variety of feathered friends. Arriving on the beach, visitors are greeted by the chatter of seabirds like snipes, plovers and oystercatchers, while majestic frigate birds and ospreys sail in the sky – always ready to pounce on their prey. Further inland, mangroves and bushlands harbor smaller birds such as buntings and warblers, but also owls and falcons. In addition, the wetlands of Cayo Costa are a perfect place to observe Florida´s iconic herons, storks and spoonbills.
South Florida’s barrier islands not only attract tourists. Seabirds also feel at home here – especially in the secluded Dry Tortugas National Park, which is only accessible by boat. There, you can observe species such as terns, noddies and brown boobies. Masked boobies are mostly found on Hospital Key, ospreys dive into the water at lightning speed, and a truly majestic sight are frigate birds with their red throat sac and a wingspan of up to 8 ft. In addition to these seabirds, the island´s interior harbors species like the grey kingbird, the black-whiskered vireo, white-crowned pigeons and the mangrove cuckoo. The best time for hobby ornithologists is spring. Then, migratory birds arrive in great numbers and seabirds come to the Keys in order to breed.
J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge
Nature lovers in Southeast Florida are well-advised to visit Sanibel Island. Almost a third of this island is occupied by the J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge – pristine mangrove forests that not only harbor alligators and manatees, but also myriads of birds. Among these 200 plus species are herons, ibises and anhingas. They can be observed on a 5-mile-long nature trail – just like falcons, ospreys and bald eagles. If you arrive in October, you will also have the chance to see huge flocks of pelicans.
Ocala National Forest
Thanks to its tall sand pine trees, this forest north of Orlando is the perfect refuge for birds: including swallow-tailed kites, nightjars, tanagers, American quails and rare species of woodpeckers. In addition, one of the largest remaining populations of the Florida Scrub-Jay lives here. Bald eagles prefer to breed around Lake George, and in spring and autumn, you can listen to songbirds such as the golden-crowned accentor and the yellow-throated vireo.
Honeymoon Island State Recreation Area
Honeymoon Island is not only a popular destination for boat tours. This island north of Tampa also attracts migratory seabirds. Among its more than 22 species are piping plovers that spend the winter in record-breaking numbers. Equally impressive is the population of terns: In some years, the island is home to 5,000 animals or more. During a walk, it is worth looking up: With a bit of luck, you will see the nests of ospreys and great horned owls. The trail also leads through a breeding area for bald eagles. However, from October to May this section is closed for visitors to make sure the birds do not get disturbed.
FAQ – Frequently Asked Questions
How many bird species live in Florida?
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, 196 species of birds breed in the state. In addition, there are foreign species that made Florida their home – and migratory birds that come here for wintering. If you add all these species up, it could be 500 or more.
Which bird species lives exclusively in Florida?
This title goes to the Florida Scrub-Jay. The songbird with the gray-blue plumage is only native to Florida, where it lives in sparse scrubland. However, the destruction of its habitat has caused the species to decline by 90 %. Today, the Florida Scrub-Jay is under protection and its population is strictly monitored.
What is the rarest bird in Florida?
A particularly rare and endangered bird is Florida´s subspecies of the grasshopper sparrow. This bird measures 4–6” and spends most of its life on the ground, where it searches for food and also lays its eggs. Among other hazards, bushfires and the destruction of natural prairies have been devastating for this species.
Can I see bald eagles in Florida?
Florida is one of the best places to spot the national animal of the USA. Its population has increased seventeen-fold since the 1970s, and now includes 1,500 breeding pairs. Bald eagles are most commonly found around lakes and rivers in the Kissimmee region and on Florida’s Gulf Coast.