Here’s how to start bird-watching in Tampa Bay

Your guide to the outdoor hobby that’s rising in popularity.
The black-and-white warbler is a songbird that spends its winters in Florida.
The black-and-white warbler is a songbird that spends its winters in Florida. [ Photo provided / Tom Bell ]
Published July 18|Updated July 22

Ann Paul was late for her first birding field trip.

Having graduated with her bachelor’s degree in biology, she’d previously been interested in mammals. With time, Paul realized studying mammals meant mostly chasing shadows, and, well, poop — clues left behind after the animals sneaked away during daylight hours.

Birds, however, share our tendency to remain awake while the sun is out. Paul was intrigued by the idea of witnessing wildlife with her own eyes. She knew little about birds, leading her to join a field trip run by a local chapter of the National Audubon Society — a network of bird enthusiasts that combines science, education, advocacy and community.

But Paul was late, and “if you’re late to an Audubon field trip, you get there and they’re gone,” she said.

As Paul started down the trail, she noticed a bird tucked within some bushes. It was a tiny thing, and it completely ignored her inquisitive eyes. But she was entranced, noticing the black-and-white stripes that adorned its small body. Paul said she knew enough to identify the bird as a warbler, but those stripes served as the final clue.

With a look at her field guide, Paul confirmed its species: a black-and-white warbler. She nearly started jumping up and down on the trail, and she forgot about catching up with the rest of the field trip.

“There it was, and there I was,” Paul said. “And I knew its species.”

This was her “spark bird,” or the bird that hooked her, as seasoned birders fondly refer to it. Since that field trip in 1985, Paul has spent her life observing birds and their stories, serving as the president of the Florida Ornithological Society, the Nature Festival and the Tampa Audubon Society.

Ann Paul is shown during a wildlife survey in Boca Ciega Bay with the Friends of the Tampa Bay National Wildlife Refuges.
Ann Paul is shown during a wildlife survey in Boca Ciega Bay with the Friends of the Tampa Bay National Wildlife Refuges. [ Photo provided / Dave Howard ]

The rest of the world has finally caught up with Paul. In recent years, people have flocked to birding — pun intended — after life in quarantine inspired many to take up new hobbies. Yet unlike sourdough bread baking and other fleeting pandemic pastimes, birding seemed to stick, becoming one of the most popular activities for folks of all ages, according to chairperson Abigail Gibson of the St. Petersburg Audubon Society.

Given its diversity in habitat, year-round warm weather and vibrant birding community, the Tampa Bay area is ideal for newcomers and experienced birders alike. Paul and Gibson shared tips and tricks for spotting feathered friends in trees, on the shore or soaring across the sky.

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Get the right equipment

Consider investing in a few tools to get you on the right path, such as a trusty pair of binoculars.

“People have a misconception that you need to get the best or most expensive pair of binoculars,” Gibson said.

But she said that’s not necessarily the case. A handful of companies, such as Vortex Optics, offer a lifetime warranty to help you get the best bang for your buck.

A handy field guide can aid in identifying birds specific to the area. Paul recommends making a trip to a specialty birding store for this purchase, such as Wild Birds Unlimited at 13140 N Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa. Sift through a few different books to ensure you’re buying the one that’s most helpful for you.

As birding adapted to the modern age, a slew of mobile apps emerged on the scene. Both Gibson and Paul suggest Merlin Bird ID, an app from Cornell Lab of Ornithology that offers a variety of settings for bird identification. Snap a picture or even record a bird call for a species prediction in real time, Gibson said.

While every birder is different, many enjoy recording sightings or snapshots in a designated birding journal. And, of course, there’s an app for that — eBird allows birders to tally their sightings and archive accompanying photos and sounds. You can also share observations or find bird hot spots near you.

As your birding journey begins, jot down a list of your bucket list birds to keep yourself motivated, Gibson recommends.

Know where to go

The Tampa Bay area offers an abundance of nature preserves and state parks — one of the reasons people come from all over for birding. Below are just a few options to get you started.

Pinellas County

  • Boyd Hill Nature Preserve is a great place for new birders, complete with the Lake Maggiore Environmental Education Center, where any and all questions are welcome. 1101 Country Club Way S, St. Petersburg.
  • Stroll down the boardwalks at Weedon Island Preserve to find birds nestled in the treetops. 1800 Weedon Drive NE, St. Petersburg.
  • While Honeymoon Island State Park is known for its sandy beaches, it’s also a great place to locate birds. 1 Causeway Blvd., Dunedin.
  • Sawgrass Lake Park has 400 acres of lush bird-spotting terrain. 7400 25th St. N, St. Petersburg.
  • Fort De Soto Park serves as the largest park in the Pinellas County park system, made up of five different islands. 3500 Pinellas Bayway S, Tierra Verde.
In this January photo, a St. Petersburg Audubon Society field trip group searches for birds in Fort De Soto Park.
In this January photo, a St. Petersburg Audubon Society field trip group searches for birds in Fort De Soto Park. [ Photo provided / St. Petersburg Audubon Society ]

Hillsborough County

  • Rent a canoe or kayak at Lettuce Lake Nature Park to embark on the Hillsborough River or hike through the park’s extensive trails. 6920 E Fletcher Ave., Tampa.
  • Birders can either explore on foot or paddle downstream at Hillsborough River State Park. 15402 U.S. 301, Thonotosassa.
  • McKay Bay Nature Park offers multiple trails through the trees as well as mangroves and mudflats. 134 N 34th St., Tampa.

Polk County

  • Camp out at Saddle Creek Park or just take a day visit to observe the vibrant bird scene. 3716 Morgan Combee Road, Lakeland.
  • Sit by Hancock Lake or amble around Circle B Bar Reserve, a former cattle ranch that now is protected natural land. 4399 Winter Lake Road, Lakeland.

Pasco County

  • Key Vista Nature Park boasts a viewing tower to watch shorebirds on the mudflats below. 2700 Baillies Bluff Road, Holiday.
  • Pick up a map at the nature center before venturing into Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park, which is part of the Starkey Wilderness Preserve. 10500 Wilderness Park Blvd., New Port Richey.

Manatee County

  • Emerson Point Preserve, on the western tip of Snead Island, includes a paved road throughout its entire property. 5801 17th St. W, Palmetto.
  • Duette Preserve is the largest preserve in Manatee County’s land preservation program, featuring the source of the Manatee River. 2649 Rawls Road, Duette.
  • Sunbathe or walk along Greer Island beach to find classic Tampa Bay beach birds. N Shore Road, Longboat Key.

If you’re in search of another recommendation or don’t see your county on this list, check out the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail, a program of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The trail consists of a network of more than 500 wildlife viewing sites throughout the state and can even alert you to specific birds you may find at each location.

Bird identification 101

Paul maintains a philosophy that would ease the anxiety of any beginning birder: “Everyone knows a lot more about birds than you think.”

She recommends using basic birds as a point of reference for more unique finds. For example: Is this bigger or smaller than a robin? Is this the same shade of red as a cardinal?

Aside from physical traits such as color, size and bill shape, noticing a bird’s behavior can also offer some clues as to its species. Is this bird wading, soaring, on the ground or perched on the branch of a tree?

If all else fails, go with people who have birded before, or join a field trip held by a local Audubon chapter. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

The roseate spoonbill can be found wading along the shore of marshy areas.
The roseate spoonbill can be found wading along the shore of marshy areas. [ Photo provided / St. Petersburg Audubon Society ]

Once you’ve honed your bird identification chops, keep an eye out for local feathered celebrities. The roseate spoonbill, famous for its pink plumes and flat bills, is a Tampa Bay favorite commonly mistaken for a flamingo. You’re most likely to see this bright, leggy creature wading on the shore. The reddish egret, named for its auburn coloring, is another shorebird that we’re lucky to see in our area. It’s commonly referred to as one of the rarest egrets in North America.

In July and early August, catch black terns making their way back up north after spending the winter in South America. You may find one of these seabirds stopping to rest along the Courtney Campbell Causeway.

Sit back and watch the show

Once you’ve identified exactly what bird you’re looking at, the show begins. Take a moment to really notice the creature’s behavior: if it’s foraging, roosting or in flight. As Paul says, feel your blood pressure drop.

Whether it’s a pelican diving into the water to scoop up fish in its mouth or an egret stalking along the edge of the wetlands looking for tadpoles, you’ll begin to notice life in a way you haven’t before, according to Paul.

“There’s so much that you can really enjoy when you start to notice.”

A Wilson's plover with its chick and eggs.
A Wilson's plover with its chick and eggs. [ Photo provided / St. Petersburg Audubon Society ]