Migrate to Pensacola to Explore the Great Florida Birding & Wildlife Trail
In Pensacola, we’re lucky to be located under the superhighway for birds, the Atlantic Flyway that stretches 3,000 miles from the Caribbean to the Arctic tundra on which a kaleidoscope of amazing birds migrates to and from their wintering grounds. Additionally, we’re the official gateway to the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail of which we boast 10 stops.
Whether you’re a novice birder or a twitcher — committed bird-watcher — you’ll find plenty of birds that find our coast a year-round paradise.
Big Lagoon State Park (Gateway)
Big Lagoon State Park near Perdido Key is the gateway for the Great Florida Birding Trail, a 2,000-mile trail through protected bird habitat in the state. You don’t have to venture far to find birds. With 600-acres along the Intracoastal Waterway, the Big Lagoon parks is home to an abundance of shorebirds and wintering ducks. Its trees are likely to attract migrating songbirds.
ECUA Bayou Marcus Wetlands
From the parking lot, this functioning wastewater treatment facility has nearly 8,000 feet of boardwalk through the wetlands created by the plant’s treated wastewater discharge. From the boardwalk, the large pond on the left hosts wintering Blue-winged Teal, Hooded Merganser, Bufflehead and Common Goldeneye. Swamp, Song and White-throated Sparrows exploit the weedy edges and Brown-headed Nuthatches and Pine Warblers call from the adjacent pinewoods. This site also hosts several species of rare and endangered plants, including the panhandle lily and white-top pitcher plant.
Gulf Islands National Seashore: Fort Pickens Area & Perdido Key Area (two separate stops)
Another piece of the Great Florida Birding trail spans the Gulf Islands National Seashore, a beautiful national park made up of ribbons of barrier islands from Mississippi to Destin. The Pensacola area features Fort Pickens on the tip of Santa Rosa Island, along with the Santa Rosa Area between Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach. In these areas, the seashore hosts the migratory piping plovers.
This federally protected bird is a small stocky sand-colored bird with orange legs that can travel more than 1,000 miles to winter on our beaches. Like our snowbirds, they love to forage the white sand beaches and flats for shellfish and other marine life. While the seashore post signs to alert the public to avoid walking through their wintering grounds, you’ll be able enjoy watching them from a distance, through binoculars and snap photos of them against the backdrop of one of the most beautiful beaches on the Gulf of Mexico.
Make sure you check out the dunes where it’s not unusual to see one of our more majestic birds, the 3- to-4-foot tall Great Blue Heron hunkered down in the sea oats. Keep the camera ready to snap a photo if it takes flight on wings that span up to six feet. The herons are also found near the Fort Pickens fishing pier hoping for a free handout from anglers.
Naval Air Station Pensacola: Trout Point Nature Trail
*Open to DoD ID holders
The pleasant Trout Point Nature Trail follows a boardwalk for 0.5 miles through the dune area, providing the unique vantage of sandy shoreline on one side and freshwater marsh and open water on the other. Wading birds like Yellow-crowned Night-herons and Snowy Egrets work the marshes while the beachfront attracts Willets, Royal Terns and Bonaparte’s Gulls (winter). Pines along the waterfront trail are worth checking for Pine Warblers and Brown-headed Nuthatches. This nature trail is part of Pensacola Naval Air Station and occasional noise from aircraft should be expected.
Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier
At 1,471 feet, you’re high in the sky and extended out in the Gulf of Mexico for a unique, prime-time viewing spot. With binoculars alone, this site offers a fare of Laughing Gulls and Forster’s Terns comparable to other area beach sites. However, with a spotting scope and an onshore wind, this 0.25-mile pier can be a seabird lover’s dream, offering an elevated stable site away from the beach. Scan the waters for wintering Common Loons and Northern Gannets between October and March. However, when the wind is strong and/or a storm is working its way across the Gulf of Mexico, rare seabirds like Bridled Tern, Wilson’s Storm-petrel and Sooty Shearwater have been spotted from the pier. Respect severe weather, but certainly don’t let a little rain or sea spray discourage you!
This award-winning coastal habit restoration project attracts huge numbers of coastal birds and is a favorite spot for birders. Spread out along Pensacola’s Bayfront Parkway along Pensacola Bay, it offers a number of viewing sites, including Wayside Park at the foot of the Pensacola Bay Bridge. If you venture west of the bridge across the street from the Veterans Memorial Park, you’ll find a boardwalk to the Hawkshaw Lagoon at Missing Children’s Memorial. That area provides a great viewing spot of tidal marshes, seagrass beds and oyster reefs where brown pelicans, osprey, herons and even a rare Nelson’s sharp-tailed sparrow was spotted.
Tarkiln Bayou Preserve State Park
Gentle giants by way of sweeping pines and low-lying palmettos are a breeding ground for birds and wildlife of all species. At over 4,000 acres, this state park is home to four species of endangered pitches plants and dozens of types of birds. A boardwalk offers visitors a view of the wild and a safe way to get to the bayou.
University of West Florida: Edward Ball Nature Trail
The Edward Ball Nature Trail includes a short boardwalk through a nice ravine and swamp, with Prothonotary Warbler-laden cypress trees above and wading egrets below. Songbirds like Northern Parulas, Summer Tanagers and Great Crested Flycatchers frequent the area, and student birders have found some interesting migrants such as Blackburnian Warbler and Dark-eyed Junco. Swallow-tailed Kites may be seen overhead in spring and summer. The slope is steep and the boardwalk shows its age, so don’t get so distracted by the birds that you forget to watch your step!
Wayside Park and Pensacola Visitor Information Center
This site is close to Project Greenshores and is a good place to look for waterbirds; the waterfront, fishing bridge and offshore breakwater all host a Herring, Ring-billed and Laughing Gulls, as well as Forster’s and Royal Terns. Common Loons feed very close to shore, and sport nearly complete breeding plumage in February/March before they migrate north for the summer. Bring your spotting scope to check the bay for wintering Red-breasted Merganser, Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead and Horned Grebes. Check the rocks along the water’s edge for Spotted Sandpiper and Ruddy Turnstone and Savannah Sparrows during the winter months.
More bird-watching spots: For a complete list of local birding hotspots, visit the Audubon Francis M. Weston’s chapter “Birding in the Pensacola Bay Area” website and check out the chapter’s website on for migrating bird alerts and to report observations.
Kimberly Blair is an outdoor enthusiast who never really felt at home in the concrete- and steel- covered prairie of Houston, Texas, where she grew up. After falling in love with the long stretches of undeveloped beaches during a spring break trip to Pensacola Beach in 1980s, she planted her roots in Gulf Breeze where she raised two children. Kim enjoyed a nearly 30-year career as a journalist at several Northwest Florida newspapers where she reported on business, the military, coastal lifestyle and the environment, earning numerous awards including being a team finalist for the Pulitzer Prize while at the Pensacola News Journal.
In 2015, she decided to leave journalism to join the creative communications team at Gulf Power as a media relations specialist. Kimberly and her artist husband enjoy strolling through the National Seashores, paddle-boarding, kayaking and, as newbie empty-nesters, long-distance cycling.