When packing for a trip to our beautiful Gulf Coast beaches, toss a pair of binoculars and camera with a zoom lens into your luggage to enjoy viewing some of our winter visitors that locals like to call our original snowbirds.
Whether you’re a novice birder or a twitcher — committed bird-watcher — you’ll find plenty of birds that find our coast a winter paradise.
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 migrate to and from their wintering grounds.
Some of them stop over to enjoy our lush marshes, flat pines forests or sparkling beaches — like piping plovers meandering along the wash zone poking their beaks into the sand as they hunt tasty morsels.
This makes the Pensacola area a birders’ paradise, a perfect place to enjoy prime spots to watch these winter guests and document the sightings in your birder’s book.
Pensacola also happens to have the gateway to the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail, that’s listed as one of Audubon’s “Eight Great Winter Birding Trails” in North America. Considered one of the “most ambitious trails on the continent” by Audubon, it starts at our own Big Lagoon State Park near Perdido Key and spans 2,000 miles across Florida and features 500 locations where waterfowl and shorebirds find winter refuge.
You likely find plenty to see in Big Lagoon that’s laced with tidal marshes and pine flatwoods, which attracts 23 species of wood-warbler, sandpipers, black-bellied plovers and a variety of ducks.
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.
Another stop on the trail is Naval Live Oaks in Gulf Breeze. It too is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore with 7.5 miles of easy walking trails that meander along the shoreline of Santa Rosa Sound on the south and Pensacola Bay on the north. The trails also traverse through a canopy of oaks and pines. This variety of landscapes offers opportunities to see all sorts of birds including some of our regular wintering birds — bright red northern cardinals and striking blue jays, red-winged blackbirds and mourning doves. On the cuter note, keep a sharp eye out for Carolina chickadees.
If you’re downtown, check out Admiral Mason Park, at Bayfront Parkway and Ninth Avenue. It features an award-winning stormwater retention pond lushly landscaped with a fountain and walking paths. It’s a magnet for waterfowl.