Bird watching 101: Snowbirds aren't only ones around in winter

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Ever seen a white pelican? Or a yellow-rumped warbler known affectionately as a "butter butt?" Or how about a yellow-bellied sapsucker? (That's its name, honest). They are all around us right now, hiding in plain sight on the waters or in the trees of Tampa Bay.

Like the snowbirds who come south to visit or live in Florida during the winter months, so, too, do the real birds. It's the perfect time of year to get outside, hike a trail and keep your eyes open for some of the rare birds visiting our area.

"The weather's perfect, the number of birds is perfect," said Diana Kyle, a park ranger at Lettuce Lake Park in Tampa, east of USF. "There are large birds around and also the itty-bitty guys. It allows birders of all ranges to find the birds they are looking for."

Kyle knows what she's talking about. She conducts hikes along the trails of Lettuce Lake Park on Saturday and Sunday mornings. She said this is an especially good time to get a closeup look at a roseate spoonbill or a wood stork. Birds such as summer tanagers, little green herons, night herons and limpkins are in the area this time of year.

"We have these little windows of opportunity to see these birds," Kyle said.

That's why area parks are usually full of birders during this time of year more than any other. The more serious bird watchers will be off the beaten path, armed with the latest equipment and a checklist of birds.

But you don't have to be an expert to go bird watching. There are plenty of guided hikes and trails to check out in the area.

"There's really no bad time of year to go birding in Florida, but this time of year is especially nice," said Ann Paul, regional coordinator for Audubon Florida. "And there are so many good places to go birding. We have more birds in our area right now than any other place in the country."

Where to go

The best places to go are areas that have both water and woods. Here are some spots suggested by both Kyle and Paul, although there are many others parks in Tampa Bay:

Fort De Soto Park, St. Petersburg: Paul calls Fort De Soto one of the best bird-watching areas on Florida's west coast. That is because it has the Gulf of Mexico on one side, Tampa Bay on the other and wooded trails in between.

Honeymoon Island, Clear­water: Like Fort De Soto, it has a gulf and bay side. There are also trails through flatwoods that have owls and osprey.

Lettuce Lake Park, Tampa: The park has two trails that are just more than a mile long, Hammock Run as well as the man-made boardwalk. It also sits in the natural flood plain of the Hillsborough River. Kyle suggests renting a canoe to see birds along the river that wouldn't normally be seen on land.

Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, St. Petersburg: The preserve has 245 acres and trails that run through the park as well as along Lake Maggiore. It is not unusual to see bald eagles, especially now in the nesting season.

The Celery Fields, Sarasota: Paul said this area is one of the best around for bird watching. It has more than 360 acres and because it is a wetland area, it is home to hundreds of different birds.

What you need

Since birding is basically hiking, a comfortable and durable pair of shoes is a must. Then there is bug spray and sunscreen. But perhaps the most important thing while bird watching is a reliable pair of binoculars.

"They really help," Paul said. "You can be far away but still see them clearly without disturbing them. You can watch them go about their everyday business."

A camera is also useful to document a bird sighting. Kyle said Lettuce Lake Park is especially good for those who want to take photos.

"If you are a budding photographer, I highly recommend you come to Lettuce Lake," Kyle said. "It's ideal because there is a boardwalk, but we also have over a quarter-million people per year visiting the park. That means our birds aren't afraid of people. You can get pretty close because they know no harm will come to them."

And of course, there is an app for birdwatchers. Merlin Bird ID, put out by Cornell University, is a free app that asks a series of questions about the bird (size, color, part of the country), then narrows down the bird in question to tell the user what kind it is.

"It's a very good app for the beginner," Kyle said.

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