By Nan Mattingly, CREW Trust volunteer
You don’t have to be an expert to enjoy the birds at all four CREW trail systems, and you don’t need fancy equipment. Just an inexpensive pair of binoculars and the will to get outside and use them.
We consulted with some birding experts to identify birds you’re likely to see throughout CREW. Their best tip for seeing most of the birds named below is to start early in the morning, just after sunrise.
CREW Marsh Trails
Blue jay: A medium size bird with a blue body, black bars on the wings and a crest on the top of the head. Present year-round in Florida. At CREW Marsh Trails, look for them in the large live oaks just north of the tower overlooking the marsh. You may hear them before you see them; they have a variety of loud calls and unique songs.
Red-shouldered hawk: Medium to large size raptor with rust-red bars on its breast and where the wing meets the body. Tends to use the same territory for years, even the same nests. Screeching, repetitive call. This hawk stalks prey from a perch, so look up when you hear that loud call. Found throughout CREW; at the Marsh Trails, you may see them in the pine flatwoods and oak hammocks.
CREW Cypress Dome Trails and Caracara Prairie Preserve
Swallow-tailed kite: All black and white with a sharply forked tail and a four-foot wingspan. Nests in the tops of pine trees in early spring in southwest Florida, migrating from South America. It’s a breathtaking sight to see a group of kites circling and swooping, dropping briefly to skim the surface of lakes to drink or bathe. Listen carefully for their sweet, shrill cries or soft whistles.
Turkey vulture: Red head, white-tipped beak, dark body feathers that resemble those of a turkey. Soars above tree tops alert for freshly killed prey, using both sight and smell to find food. They are a consummate scavenger, cleaning up the countryside one bite at a time. This bird has no song, but it hisses, grunts and growls when eating.
Carolina wren: Medium size bird with a brown crown, white throat, buff-colored or white underparts, rufous-colored back and wings and a distinctive white stripe above the eye. Once paired, they define and maintain a territory and stay together for several years. They raise multiple broods during the summer breeding season. These birds like to hang out in undergrowth and sometimes you have to identify them by their loud, distinctive song which sounds like “teakettle, teakettle, teakettle” or “cherry, cherry, cherry.”
CREW Bird Rookery Swamp
Snowy egret: A small white heron with black legs and a long black bill with a yellow patch at its base; yellow feet (think of them as yellow snow boots to remember their name). At one time the plumes of the snowy egret were in demand to decorate women’s hats and plume hunters decimated their numbers, but now protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and their population has rebounded. Snowy egrets wade in shallow water to spear fish and other small aquatic animals.
Northern parula: Small, compact warbler with blue-gray upper parts and bronze-green back patch. Throat and breast are yellow and belly is white. Winters in southwest Florida. The northern parula feeds on insects and invertebrates; occasionally hovers or hangs upside down on foliage to catch insects in the air. Its song is an ascending “zeeeee-yip”. Fairly common in Bird Rookery Swamp, less common in other parts of CREW, because it prefers the swampy, forested habitat.
Green heron: Small heron with a glossy, greenish cap and back. Its wings are gray-black grading into green or blue, and it has a chestnut-colored neck with a white stripe. Active during the day, it walks slowly or stands motionless in water to wait for prey, and then it strikes quickly with its daggerlike bill. This heron has been seen to place food in the water to attract fish. Sometimes you’ll see them perched in trees and shrubs.
CREW Flint Pen Strand
Bald eagle: The bald eagle is the star of the show at Flint Pen Strand, larger and more impressive than other raptors found there. Most of us are familiar with its distinctive look – white head, neck and tail, big yellow bill and dark brown body. Swooping over water, it hunts its favorite prey – fish – and its strong hind talon pierces the fish while the front talons hold the fish securely. Its wing span is six to seven feet. A pair of bald eagles has been nesting around the eastern side of Flint Pen Strand for some years, and lucky hikers are occasionally treated to the sight of a bald eagle soaring overhead.
Eastern bluebird: Brilliant blue back and wings, with a rusty breast and white underparts. Often seen in open woodlands and clearings; look for them in the northeast corner of the lakes area. It makes its loose nest of grass or plant stems in natural tree cavities, even in abandoned woodpecker holes. Its population declined by 90% in the last century, partly because as trees are felled, it loses its favorite nesting sites. Bird boxes have helped restore the population.
Woodpeckers: Woodpeckers of all kinds are year-round residents, including red-bellied, downy, pileated and sapsucker woodpeckers. Most remarkable is a sizable population of red-headed woodpeckers, with their solid red heads, black wings and white wing bars. You’ll see them near the southern portion of the red trail, usually hunting insects on dead trees.
Some hints for beginning birders:
Invest in a pair of binoculars and learn how to use them; take along a good field guide like Sibley’s Bird Basics, which will teach you how to identify birds by characteristics; download a good bird identification app like the Audubon Bird Guide and eBird; wear dull, neutral colors to blend into the natural background; and respect nature – don’t step off the trail to get a good picture, and don’t harass birds. If you can, tag along with an experienced birder and don’t be afraid to ask for advice. If you want to start and keep a list of birds you’ve observed, there are many apps that provide guidance and allow you to keep your list on your phone.
More resources on birds:
Cornell Ornithology Lab maintains a web site called “All About Birds” which covers just about everything you need to know to get started and develop your skills. A particularly useful book for this region is Birds of Florida by Fred J. Alsop III. And here’s a cool website: https://birdcast.info/migration-tools/, where you can follow bird migration in real time all over the U.S.
Please share your best bird photos with the CREW community, on our CREW Land & Water Trust Facebook page or send them directly to Allison@CREWTrust.org.
Many thanks to knowledgeable birders who contributed to this piece: Jayne Johnston, former education coordinator, CREW Land & Water Trust; Dick Brewer, volunteer naturalist and brilliant citizen scientist; Barbara Centola, CREW Trust volunteer and birder extraordinaire; and Kathleen Smith and Lauren Plussa, biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.