Picture of a crested caracara at Stormwater Treatment Area 5

A crested caracara is one of hundreds of bird species found in the Stormwater Treatment Area 5, one of Florida's top birding destinations.

Photograph by Heather Green Photography, Getty Images/Flickr Open

By Maryellen Kennedy Duckett

Eastern North America’s highest diversity of birds and butterflies is found in Florida, and nowhere is that variety more evident than on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail. The trail’s 515 stops offer experiences for avian enthusiasts of all levels, from backyard bird-watchers to globe-trotting “listers.”

Morningside Nature Center, Gainesville

One of the most easily accessible sites on the trail, Morningside Nature Center is a city-owned Gainesville nature park. Walk the more than six miles of trails to spot savanna birds, such as the red-headed woodpecker and common nighthawk, and to hear the calls of migratory songbirds, including the American redstart and Swainson’s thrush. The park is free and open year-round; however, prescribed burns are scheduled throughout the year to help restore and preserve the park’s fire-dependent longleaf pine woodlands.

High Bluff Coastal Hiking Trail, Tate’s Hell State Forest

Considered one of northwest Florida’s top stops on the trail, this four-mile hike (one-way) through sand pine scrub offers opportunities to see creatures great (including the Florida black bear and bald eagle) and small (such as the brown-headed nuthatch and red-bellied woodpecker). Seasonal hunting is permitted in Tate’s Hell State Forest. Check the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission hunting page for dates and safety regulations.

Stormwater Treatment Area 5, Hendry County

The location name may not entice you, but the wildlife will. Stormwater Treatment Area 5, a man-made wetland complex built to help protect the Everglades, is one of the state’s top birding destinations. More than 200 species have been spotted in this remote site, including the roseate spoonbill, peregrine falcon, purple gallinule, and black-bellied whistling duck. The best way to visit is via one of the 25 Hendry-Glades Audubon Society guided tours offered throughout the year. “Bring binoculars, high-powered lenses, or a birding scope to see thousands of birds on a typical day,” says Margaret England, Hendry-Glades Audubon president.

TRAVEL TIPS

When to Go: Stormwater Treatment Area 5 is open to the public during daylight hours on Fridays, Saturdays, and Mondays year-round, and on Sundays except during posted duck-harvesting days in fall and winter. In addition to the guided tours, you can hike or bike the 18 miles of trails. No motorized vehicles are allowed, except during driving trips with Audubon tours.

Practical Tip: Some stops on the trail, such as Duval County’s Machaba Balu Preserve, can only be accessed by boat, canoe, or kayak.

What to Read Before You Go: The National Audubon Society Field Guide to Florida (Knopf, 1998) is a helpful and compact bird- and wildlife-watching resource that includes more than 1,300 photographs, 14 maps, and detailed descriptions of 50 viewing sites.

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