5 Top Spots for Bird Photography in Southwest Florida

Royal Tern, Sanibel Island, Florida. © Melissa Groo

Royal Tern, Sanibel Island, Florida. © Melissa Groo

Florida is a mecca for bird photographers. Especially for those who, like me, constantly lament the tendency of birds that live around me to flee at the mere sight of me here in upstate New York. In Florida, not only are the birds numerous, but they are also surprisingly easy to approach. Since I seriously got into bird photography a couple years ago, I try to get down there about twice a year. I have come to be very familiar with the opportunities for bird photography in southwest Florida, as I always stay with my snowbird in-laws in Fort Myers. I have checked out a lot of spots, and have settled on some favorites that I tend to return to again and again as they consistently provide me with wonderful experiences. My favorite time of year to go is anytime from February to May. This time period will offer birds in breeding plumage, behavior, and chicks for some species. The summer would also be a productive time to find chicks, but I don’t think I would be too keen on the heat index. One thing to keep in mind is that the Florida sun is pretty strong year round. If a day is sunny, I tend to shoot only in the early morning and then again in late afternoon, as the harsh light of midday makes for contrasty images. It’s important to know your sunrise times, and try to get in place before the sun rises. Those first few minutes after the sun comes up can make for some spectacular images.

As for equipment, I use a super telephoto lens for most of my bird photos in Florida. But due to the ease with which one can get near to birds there, there are a range of suitable options. I think a 300mm or 400mm would be good, or a zoom lens in the range of 100-400. Even a 70-200mm with or without teleconverters can do the job in many places. I use a tripod for my big lens a lot of the time, although I do find it easier to handhold when photographing birds in flight. If you bring a tripod, make sure you wash it after every submersion in salt water so it doesn’t corrode. That’s something I don’t have to worry about in central New York, so I have to remind constantly remind myself to that when I’m there.

So here is my highly subjective list on the five best spots for bird photography in the southwest Florida area. Also visit The Birds of Florida gallery page for a sampling of my images taken at these locations.

Editor’s note: We STRONGLY urge all photographers to be sensitive to wildlife and obey the American Birding Association Code Of Ethics. This not only keeps birds safe, but keeps birding and photography a fun and welcome hobby for all of us.

1. BUNCHE BEACH PRESERVE

Fort Myers, FL, 18201 John Morris Road
Best Time of Year to Go: Any
Best Time of Day to Go: LOW TIDE

This is a wonderful place to photograph shorebirds, seabirds, and wading birds, but make sure you go at low tide, or you will find few if any birds. I also prefer to go here on weekdays as opposed to weekends as there will be fewer people there to disturb the birds. In my numerous visits here, I’ve photographed Reddish Egrets, Little Blue Herons, Black-Bellied Plovers, Long-Billed Curlews, Piping Plovers, Marbled Godwits, Black Skimmers, Red-Breasted Mergansers, Osprey, White Pelicans, Brown Pelicans, and many kinds of terns. I’ve heard others have photographed Bald Eagles, Roseate Spoonbills, and Peregrine Falcons here. You never know what you will find.

Pay $2 an hour for parking at the solar-powered pay station in the lot. After parking, go to beach, and turn right (east) for best birding/photography.

Tips:

  • A tide schedule for the preserve (and elsewhere along the Florida Gulf Coast) can be found here. In the case of Bunche Beach Preserve, choose “Matanzas Pass (fixed bridge) Estero Island” at Estero Bay.
  • Bring a good sized paintbrush to this and any other beach site. It’s a super handy tool to brush the sand off your camera.
  • This is not far from the Sanibel Island Causeway, might be good to combine a visit here with Sanibel (see below).

2. CAPE CORAL

Best Time of Year to Go: Any
Best Time of Day to Go: Early Morning/Late Afternoon

Only 7.5-11″ tall, the Burrowing Owl is one of the smallest owls, and, of the almost 200 owl species worldwide, the only owl that lives underground. Most of their burrows are readily found as they are marked with white PVC posts, and a wooden T-perch. Sometimes they are roped or taped off. Don’t get too close or you could cause them to abandon their nest. Certainly never go within the perimeter staked out by the posts. Do try to get down low to photograph them, so that you are less intimidating and also for a better background.

Burrowing Owl nests have typically been found near the Cape Coral Library and can be found at other municipal property and parks in the city. Vacant lots are also a great place to check out. The best indication as you drive around are the telltale white PVC posts that mark the nests.

The owls stay here year round but tend to avoid the hottest parts of the day, so the best time to look for them is early morning or late in the day (which is usually better for shooting when it’s sunny anyway). The best time to see the chicks is late April through June. Once the chicks are about a week and a half old, they start to come out of the burrow.

3. ESTERO LAGOON

Fort Myers
Best Time of Year to Go: Any
Best Time of Day to Go: Low Tide

This lagoon is found south of Fort Myers Beach, in between the Holiday Inn and the beach. Arthur Morris (see birdsasart.com) made this site famous for bird photography, partly due to how the colors of the condos reflected in the lagoon can make for stunning images.

The usual charismatic wading birds can be found here: Reddish Egrets, Tricolored Herons, Little Blue Herons, Great Egrets. Many shorebirds can be found along the beach and in the lagoon from fall through spring. Both Piping and Snowy Plovers may be present (again, we urge strong respect for these and all birds). American Oystercatchers and Willets are common and Wood Storks and Roseate Spoonbills can be found feeding in the lagoon. Osprey are frequent visitors, fishing and gathering nest materials along the beach. In summer, Least Terns nest on the beach around the lagoon in roped off areas.

Tips:

  • Park in the shopping mall across the road from Holiday Inn and walk back to the hotel. Walk the foot trail that starts behind the Holiday Inn. This foot trail stays close to the hotels until it gets to the lagoon.
  • Warning: The traffic here, as well as across the bridge to get to any of the beaches, can be awful, particularly during vacations and weekends. Build in an extra hour to get across the Fort Myers Beach Bridge (also known as Matanzas Pass Bridge) unless you’re traveling back and forth extremely early or late.

4. SANIBEL ISLAND (Ding Darling, Sanibel Lighthouse/Pier, Blind Pass Beach)

Just offshore of Fort Myers
Best Time of Year to Go: Any
Best Time of Day to Go: Low Tide for Ding Darling

The Wildlife Drive at Ding Darling is the big attraction for photographers here. It will take you through four miles of mangrove tree forests and tidal flats. You’re likely to see Roseate Spoonbills, White Pelicans, Reddish Egrets, Tricolored Herons, Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, and Yellow-Crowned Night Herons. Many people are content to shoot from their cars.

Early morning is the best time for photography because nearly all of the action is on the left/west side of the drive. Try to time your visit to coincide with a low tide as you are much more likely to see greater numbers of birds then. Go here to find the tide schedule.

The drive typically opens at 7 a.m. but closing time varies from month to month, so check here for exact time:

The admission cost per vehicle is $5.00. The Drive is closed every Friday to all public access. This is to give the wildlife an opportunity to feed along the Drive with no human disturbance.

Note: The Wildlife Drive at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island will be closed for repaving from May through September 2013.

On the eastern tip of the island lie the lighthouse and the fishing pier, where birds often hang around waiting or handouts from the fishermen. You can stand a couple feet away from a Snowy Egret perching on the railing of the dock, and use a wide angle lens. Flight shots are also good here as Brown Pelicans and other birds are often observed diving for fish. Peregrine Falcons have been spotted here quite a bit, and last time I was there I watched Magnificent Frigatebirds fishing not far off. During migration time in fall and spring, if you come in the very early morning, you might find large numbers of migrating birds resting in the trees.

There are many different beaches all along Sanibel and on Captiva Island as well, any of which would be a good spot to find various seabirds and shorebirds. I like to go to Blind Pass, which is at the northernmost tip of Sanibel Island, just before you cross over to Captiva. I always find a good number of terns and gulls resting there on the beach. It’s a great spot for flight shot practice, as, with the people that are walking up and down looking for shells, the birds are often taking off and then settling back down.

  • Misc. Tips: On the causeway to Sanibel, there are numerous pulloffs. It’s worth stopping along here and seeing what you find. I’ve found Magnificent Frigatebird soaring not far above, Brown Pelicans and Osprey fishing, and Ruddy Turnstones picking their way along the shore.
  • There is a toll of $6.00 to get on the causeway towards the island. Every parking lot has a self pay parking stand, which takes cash and credit cards. The parking lots often get full at Blind Pass and at the Lighthouse, and you may need to wait for a spot to open up.

5. VENICE ROOKERY

Venice, Florida 34293, 4002 S. Tamiami Trail
Best Time of Year to Go: December to May
If Sun, Best Time of Day to Go: Morning

Managed by the Venice Area Audubon Society, the Venice Rookery is the site of a small island rookery in the middle of a small lake. If you don’t feel like walking much to get to your destination, this is the place for you. Just pull up, walk a few yards, and you’re right there. And it’s free! No parking or admission fees. Amenities include a roofed pavilion, benches, and Porta Potties. This is definitely a morning shoot if it’s a sunny day, as the sun will come up directly behind you as you face the rookery.

As their web site justifiably claims, this spot is “internationally known to bird photographers.” Species that nest here include the Great Blue Heron, Anhinga, Great Egret, Black-crowned Night Heron, Common Moorhen, Green Heron, and Snowy Egret. Double-Crested Cormorants, White Ibis and Glossy Ibis roost there; if you get there before sunrise, you’ll see and hear (and feel!) them fly off right over your head. You’re also likely to see Mottled Ducks flying by, and in the trees around you, warblers and woodpeckers.

Breeding and nesting activity goes on from December to May. Egrets and herons will fly in carrying nesting material, which makes for some great flight shots. Great Blue Heron chicks–which can be seen as early as January–can be seen jostling each other for a tasty fish delivered by a parent.

For more info: visit the Venice Rookery website.

 

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See the IF YOU GO section for other areas to consider plus useful travel resources.

Don’t forget to visit The Birds of Florida gallery page for a sampling of images I took at the above locations.

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Melissa Groo

Melissa Groo

Melissa Groo is a wildlife photographer living in upstate New York. Her passion for wildlife, conservation, and ethical photography drives her to tell stories and educate people about the marvels of the natural world through Read More

Leave a Comment

  • Russ Burden July 2, 2013, 16:09

    Great article – wouldn’t it be a coincidence if I ran into you at Estero – what are the odds?

    Reply
  • Melissa groo July 2, 2013, 17:32

    Ha! I have fond memories of our encounter there Russ…would love to run into you again!

    Reply
  • Valerie and Ray parry September 8, 2016, 13:49

    Thanks Melissa, we have concentrated on the East coast of Florida but will be going to the Gulf side early in 2017. The information that you have here is extremely useful and appreciated

    Reply