The Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail

By Kathalyn Gaither

The west section of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail consists of two gateways – the Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville and Fort De Soto County Park in St. Petersburg. These gateways are a great place for visitors to learn more about the history, habitat and wildlife found along the trails, by talking to the staff on site or checking out the informational kiosks about the trails.

The trail weaves through numerous preserves, state trails, wildlife management areas and 21 state parks. Along the bluffs in Suwannee River State Park, visitors can hear the chirping of migratory songbirds, such as magnolia warblers, in the air. Winding through old growth forests and beside tannic rivers, the trail crosses other public lands including the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway, Osceola National Forest and the Withlacoochee State Trail. Bicyclists, hikers, paddlers and equestrians are common sights in addition to the numerous birds and wildlife, including the Florida black bear, state-listed as a designated threatened species.

While birdwatching at Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park – a National Natural Landmark – adventure seekers can descend a massive sinkhole 120 feet deep into a miniature forest, lush with vegetation. At Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, hawks and waterfowl are common sights, as well as large numbers of sandhill cranes throughout the winter months.

During the winter months, the National Wildlife Refuge in the lower Suwannee region is a great place to see colorful roseate spoonbills and white pelicans with their up-to nine-foot wingspan, as well as a Native American shell midden. And for those who have never seen a manatee, or can never tire of seeing them, Crystal River is a popular wintering spot for the gentle giants.

Along the more southern trail sections, bald eagles, hawks and osprey are often seen scouting for fish in the lakes and gulf waters. On Shell Key Preserve, as well as other preserves, many species including the oystercatcher and least terns, rely on the habitat as nursery grounds so please respect the restricted area signs.

Some sites are closed during certain times of the year and others require advance reservations so be sure to check before heading out. Also, remember many trails lead through and around swamp and marshlands, so definitely remember to bring the bug spray on your outdoor adventure through Florida’s exquisite natural areas.

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