Pasco County: A Birdwatching Paradise

Seasoned birdwatchers can attest to how nature has a way of melting away the day’s stresses – there’s something about breathing in the fresh air, hearing the leaves and twigs crackle and snap underneath your footsteps, that puts minds at ease. Even the green foliage seems to replenish your screen-saturated eyes. All of which are contributing factors as to how birdwatching has become one of the fastest growing hobbies in North America. With its diverse habitats and unique wildlife, Florida’s Sports Coast offers an unforgettable experience for birdwatchers.

Photo of a roseate spoonbill at Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park, taken by Joe Colontonio.

Florida’s Sports Coast is a great birdwatching destination because of its west-central location offering a diverse range of habitats including wetlands, forests, and beaches which attract a wide range of bird species. Migratory birds as well as native species from the north and south can be found. For example, the Florida sandhill crane which live to be older than most birds, some reaching 20 years old. These non-migratory species nest in freshwater ponds and marshes, which are abundantly found in Florida’s Sports Coast. Rare birds such as the Florida burrowing owl and the elusive Florida scrub-jay are just two of the species that may also be spotted. Other species, such as the swallow-tailed kite, can be found during only certain times of the year. With over 100,000 acres of public land to access and explore, Florida’s Sports Coast is perfect for birdwatching, whether you’re an avid birdwatcher or getting into a new hobby.

Photo of a bald eagle at the Coastal Anclote Trail. Photo credit: Pasco County Parks, Recreation, and Natural Resources.

The first stop on your birdwatching journey should be the Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park, a 8,300-acre preserve of pine flatwoods, cypress domes, freshwater marshes, and stream and lake swamps, all perfect habitats for many bird species. It forms part of the greater Starkey Wilderness Preserve, one of the largest undeveloped tracts in Pasco County protecting sensitive environmental areas. This park offers a camping area, horse corral and equestrian trail, shelters and pavilions, and multiple nature and multi-purpose trails to complete your visit. It also features a birding trail designated by the Audubon Society where 177 species of birds may be viewed, such as eastern bluebirds and painted buntings among other species.

Next, head over to Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park, which stretches along the Gulf of Mexico coastline for nearly four miles and encompasses 4,000 acres. With several viewing stands located on its Springs and Eagle trails, you may spot bald eagles, roseate spoonbills, the elusive black rail, hawks, wading birds, shorebirds and migratory songbirds. The saltwater and freshwater marshes, mangrove islands, and tidal flats of the state park, offer a unique opportunity to observe these birds within their natural habitat. Paddleboarding and kayaking are also another great way to get closer look. Paddle through the tangled mangroves, tidal creeks and expansive salt marshes or venture through the park’s kayak trail to explore the mangrove islands, giving you a chance to get even closer to the birds and other wildlife. You are welcome to bring your own kayaks and canoes or rent them at the park from Salty Dog Kayak Rentals.

Connecting with local Birdwatchers

While birdwatching can be done alone, the social aspect of the hobby is another factor contributing to its rising popularity, with about 50 million Americans planning outings to observe wild birds every year. Groups such as the West Pasco Audubon Society are a great place to connect with fellow birdwatchers and get plugged into to the birding community. These groups offer activities such as bird walks and birding by bike, which some refer to as “bike birding,” allowing for greater ground coverage than walking and a much lower environmental impact than birdwatching by car. These events usually take place at other birding hotspots such as, Anclote Gulf Pier Park, Crews Lake Park, Key Vista Park, Heartwood Preserve, Hudson Beach, Robert Rees (Green Key) Memorial Park, Starkey Market, SunWest Park and Werner Boyce State Park. Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park also offers group birding tours at the Anclote River Ranch.

Photo of a willet on Pasco County shoreline. Photo credit: Pasco County Parks, Recreation, and Natural Resources.

Whether you’re an experienced birder or a novice, you’re sure to find plenty of feathered friends to admire in Florida’s Sports Coast. It is a hobby that has something instore for everyone. As author Diane Cooledge Porter describes it, birding is truly a quest, “you set out to see birds – but the prize you come back with can only be described as happiness. Learning to bird is like getting a lifetime ticket to the theater of nature.” With its incredible diversity of bird species and scenic landscapes, Florida’s Sports Coast is a birdwatcher’s paradise that you won’t want to miss!

Photo of royal terns at Anclote Key Island. Photo credit: Oceanographic Magazine.