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Birdwatching in Florida: Where you might see rare mangrove cuckoos, birds with iridescent feathers

This list includes places in Southwest Florida to bring your binos, phones and cameras.

Mark H. Bickel Andrew West
Fort Myers News-Press
  • Endangered snail kites, rare birds, are usually found in Central Florida, Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades
  • Least bittern hunts (small herons) are hard to find because of their size and propensity to stay hidden in vegetation in freshwater or brackish marshes
  • Black skimmers are popular at Tigertail Beach on Marco Island

NOTE TO READERS: The News-Press and Naples Daily News published this story by environment reporter Chad Gillis on Monday (Jan. 23) about Everglades National Park recently named the best birding park in the nation by Travel Lens. It was one of the most-read stories we published. We have asked our award-winning photographer Andrew West, known for his stunning wildlife photography, to share some of his favorite places to see birds in Southwest Florida.

Here are Andrew's picks. They are not ranked, only listed. And an important disclaimer: things are changing all of the time in SWFL as far as weather, migration patterns and other factors that will affect the presence of birds at these locations:

1-Six Mile Cypress Slough

A pair of wood ducks are seen on one of the ponds at Six Mile Cypress Slough on Wednesday, April 14, 2021 morning.

LOCATION: 7751 Penzance Blvd., Fort Myers

ACCORDING TO ANDREW: You can basically see all kinds of birds there. Everything from warblers to wading birds, night herons and wood ducks, which have really colorful heads. You can also see great blue herons and great egrets during breeding season. And there are really cool great egrets nesting on the far side of first big lake in the slough during nesting season.

2-HARNS MARSH

An endangered snail kite hunts for apple snails at Harns Marsh in Lehigh Acres recently. The rare birds are usually found in the Central Florida,  Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades area but a colony has established itself in the Harns Marsh area and they feed mostly on the invasive exotic apple snails. A University of Florida study published in 2017 says the birds evolved to develop a larger beak over a short span of 10 years so they could consume the larger invasive exotic apple snails. As scientists continue to research the changes and map the birdsÕ genome, some say it may be saving the species from extinction.

LOCATION: 38th St. West, Lehigh Acres

ACCORDING TO ANDREW: Common bird here are limpkins. A cool sighting would be a snail kite because they are rare. Also, sandhill cranes hang out there and nest there, and different migrating birds. But the marsh is snail kite haven because they nest there. Also, you can see purple gallinules, which are really beautiful because their feathers are iridescent.

3-LAKES PARK

Great blue heron chicks interact with with each other in a nest at Lakes Park in Fort Myers on Wednesday March, 4, 2020. It is nesting season for wading birds.

LOCATION: 7330 Gladiolus Drive, Fort Myers

ACCORDING TO ANDREW: Lakes Park is urban friendly. It is very easy for people to go see birds there. Lately, what I am seeing there are lots of warblers. Occasionally, there are sightings of painted buntings. Last year there was a least bittern sighting. Also, this is a very popular spot for wading birds and nesting ibis and great blue heron nesting because it has a rookery.

A least bittern hunts and perches on reeds at Lakes Park recently. The small herons are difficult to locate because of their size and propensity to stay hidden in vegetation in freshwater or brackish marshes.

4-CORKSCREW SWAMP SANCTUARY

A painted bunting perches near a bird feeder at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary on Wednesday 2/28/2019. The swamp is filled with life this time of year. Sightings include painted bunting, warblers, snakes, alligators, limpkins and hummingbirds.

LOCATION:375 Sanctuary Road West, Naples

ACCORDING TO ANDREW: They have an abundance of birds that you would see in Southwest Florida. You will see all kinds of birds going through there: barred owls, swallow-tailed kites, wood storks. It’s also known for warblers, roseate spoonbills, snowy egrets and painted buntings.

5-TIGERTAIL BEACH

Black skimmer like this one are popular at Tigertail Beach on Marco Island.

LOCATION: 480 Hernando Drive, Marco Island

ACCORDING TO ANDREW: Black skimmers and reddish egrets are popular at this beach.  Also wading birds and shore birds including Wilson's, piping and snowy plovers along with royal and least terns.

Andrew West on Instagram: "#warblers at #sanibelisland #lighthouse this morning. #sanibellighthouse.#capemaywarbler #blackpollwarbler #palmwarbler #birding #birds"

BONUS PICK: BUNCHE BEACH

A roseate spoonbill feeds amongst a flock of white ibis at Bunche Beach in south Fort Myers on Sunday, July 24, 2022. The beautiful pink birds stick their prehistoric looking bills into the water and sweep their heads back and forth and snap up small prey in the shallows of mudflats. They can be seen in salt water and fresh water environments.

LOCATION: 18201 John Morris Road, Fort Myers

ACCORDING TO ANDREW: It is another one of the best spots for me. On a low tide it has several kinds of plovers and other small shorebirds including marbled godwits. You will have osprey and all kinds of wading birds including reddish, snowy and great egrets. Every once in awhile, a group of roseate spoonbills can be seen. NOTE: According to Lee County, due to Hurricane Ian, there is currently no access to Bunche Beach.

Hurricane Ian impact

Speaking of Hurricane Ian, Andrew wanted to point out three other places in Southwest Florida that would likely be considered for his Top 5, but they are currently closed and not accessible to bird watchers and others due to damage caused by Hurricane Ian last Sept. Here are those locations.

J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Preserve

LOCATION: 1 Wildlife Drive, Sanibel

ACCORDING TO ANDREW: Pelicans, including white pelicans. All kinds of wading birds including roseate spoonbills and egrets. A rare but amazing sighting are mangrove cuckoos.

A white pelican comes in for a landing at J.N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge.
Roseate spoonbills spread their wings at J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Thursday, July 22, 2021.

Little Estero Critical Wildlife Area

LOCATION: Fort Myers Beach (south end)

ACCORDING TO ANDREW: One of my favorite spots. It's a great place for snowy plovers, least terns and black skimmers.

Sometimes you just need mom or dad: Snowy plover chicks find refuge under a parent on the south end of Fort Myers Beach on Wednesday May, 29, 2019. The birds nest in that area along with a colony of least terns. Snowy Plovers are listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List. Officials who monitor the colony of terns and plovers urge beachgoers to be cautious around the nesting site. Eggs and chicks blend in to the beach. The area is staked off but caution is still advised. Photographed with a 600 mm lens with a 2x converter.

Sanibel Lighthouse

LOCATION: 112 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel

ACCORDING TO ANDREW: During an occasional fallout, the birding here can be amazing. I have seen rose-breasted grosbeaks, painted and indigo buntings and all kinds of different warblers including yellow, hooded and several types of vireos. But the fall out is brief. Someone on a birding site will list a ton of birds. It is really cool to see but you have be pretty in tune with the birding community. As they migrate over, the lighthouse is the first bit of land they see and they hang out for couple of days and move on. Have to time it well and be watching birding sites. Also, a fairly common site is pileated woodpeckers, pelicans and snowy egrets along with nesting osprey.

A hooded warbler flits through shrubbery at the Sanibel Lighthouse on Sanibel Island on Saturday, April 20  2019. It is spring migration for birds as they make their way north. They are coming from Central America where they make their way across the Gulf of Mexico.
A  female summer tanager  perches in a tree at the Sanibel Lighthouse on Sanibel Island on Saturday, April 20  2019. It is spring migration for birds as they make their way north. They are coming from Central America where they make their way across the Gulf of Mexico.
Rose-breasted Grosbeak