Must-See Bird Watching in the Naples Area

By Chelle Koster Walton

Naples, Marco Island and the Everglades are the gateway to the Great Florida Birding Trail and part of the Atlantic Flyway, teeming with hundreds of colorful and rare species of winged creatures.

The morning began with a limpkin salute. It greeted us from the boardwalk railing at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, calling out its woeful song. Then the warblers came to life, bringing a cheerful note to the brisk fall day. By the end of the 2.25-mile boardwalk, we were watching a cloud-high silhouette with binoculars and collectively held our breath. Was it? Is it? Could it be? Yes! A wood stork! It was a good sign for the sanctuary, where the picky big bird sometimes, some years, decides to nest. But, only if the conditions are just right.

A boardwalk winds through a swamp in the Florida Everglades.

Nature trails and boardwalks wind through some of Florida's most pristine bird-watching areas.

Naples, Marco Island and the Everglades is directly in the path of one of the world's most-traveled flyways, along which migrating birds pass and take their rest stops. The South Florida segment of the Great Florida Birding Trail highlights the rich birdwatching experiences that the area offers life-listers and casual observers – you can explore more than 10 stops in Collier County alone, where 80% of land is designated as a park or preserve. More than 200 species have been spotted through the years. During the winter, when migration is in full swing, is the best time to see the widest variety of birds. However, many of these birds are residents, making any time a productive time for birding. 

Here are some of the best spots for bird watching.

Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

As far as bird concentration and ease of viewing, Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is the best for birding in Collier County. The Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is home to the world's last old-growth bald cypress forest, and it is the world's largest nesting site for the endangered wood stork. Besides its signature wood storks, the sanctuary is also home to year-round white ibis and red-bellied woodpeckers and winter's migrating warblers, painted buntings, summer tanagers and other colorful, songful species. Countless mammal and reptile species also make their home here, and you can seek them out from the 2.25-mile boardwalk, which winds through upland, wetland and cypress forest habitats.

Birding in the Everglades

The widest variety of species settles into the vast acreage of preserved lands that include Everglades National Park, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, Picayune Strand State ForestBig Cypress National PreserveTen Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and Collier-Seminole State Park.

Visitors to Everglades National Park's Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City will be rewarded with many sightings of osprey, hawk, swallow tailed kite and other birds of prey, as well as roseate spoonbill and many species of heron. In addition, flocks of white pelicans arrive each fall to stay through spring. Guided boat tours are available from Everglades City Boat Adventures, or you can hire a private boat or kayak guide for trips to the Wilderness Waterway or the Paradise Coast Blueway for spectacular natural scenery.

An egret stretches its legs at Big Cypress National Wildlife Refuge.

An egret stretches its legs at Big Cypress National Wildlife Refuge.

Especially in the winter, when a lack of rain concentrates fish food supplies into small areas and migratory birds visit, the mangroves fill with a chromatic scale of white and brown pelicans, roseate spoonbills, white ibises, great blue herons, green herons, snowy egrets, red-shouldered hawks, bald eagles, ospreys and more. Swallow-tailed kites sail the wind currents during the spring and summer months, and their cousin, the rare Everglades kite, feeds its fussy appetite for apple snails, which live in the marshes. For best results, do your bird eyeing at low tide in mangrove waterways.

Marco Island: A Sanctuary for Shorebirds

The American bald eagle is emblematic here, although it nests in tall aeries throughout the region. On Tigertail Beach Park and its Sand Dollar Island – deemed Florida's second most important sanctuary for shore birds – protected tidal pools attract droves of birds. Ospreys, gulls and pelicans do their aerial fishing routines while wading and shorebirds peck lunch from along the water line and sand bars. Along Big Marco Pass at Tigertail's north end, the beach is a critical nesting and resting area for three of Florida's listed species: the least tern, black skimmer and piping plover.

Ospreys, gulls and pelicans do their aerial fishing routines while wading and shorebirds peck lunch from along the water line and sand bars.

Around Marco Island, small islands support healthy populations of roosting birds, from brown pelicans to reddish egrets, giving the mangroves the festive appearance of Christmas trees decorated with great, oversized ornaments. Nature cruises and charters in Naples and Marco Island customize birding excursions to the rookeries. Bring along binoculars as access to the rookery islands is restricted.

Nearby Rookery Bay Estuarine Research Reserve is an undisturbed land that's home to bald eagles, yellow-crowned night herons, great egrets, hawks and more. In January, the reserve hosts the Southwest Florida Birding Festival for one weekend.

Cocohatchee River: Kayaking & Birdwatching

Along this wild and natural waterway, brown pelicans, ospreys, and great and snowy egrets are most visible, but you can also happen upon roseate spoonbills and bald eagles if your timing is good. Naples Marina and Excursions rents kayaks and conducts eco-cruises into the waters.

Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park: Busy Birds & Unspoiled Beaches

Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park sees a lot of shorebird action – sanderlings, willets, sandpipers and plovers – on the beach. And its estuary back waters attract all sorts of hungry birds – double-crested cormorants, anhingas, herons, hawks and ospreys. Watch for bald eagles and pileated woodpeckers in dead trees; magnificent frigatebirds and pelicans airborne. The park regularly conducts special ranger-led birding tours.