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Florida Keys Birding: Your Ultimate Adventure Guide

florida keys birding

The Florida Keys are one of the best locations on the planet for bird watching. Florida Keys islands offer a birding experience that’s as diverse as it is enchanting.

From rare species to the spectacular migratory patterns, the Keys provide a front-row seat to a captivating avian spectacle.

We’re sharing insider tips and letting you know what birds you’ll see so you can plan for the best Florida Keys birding adventure.

10 Florida Keys Birding Hotspots For Your Itinerary

Planning a birding adventure in the Florida Keys? You’re in for a treat! Here’s a guide to the must-visit hotspots that promise a feathered spectacle beyond your expectations.

National Key Deer Refuge

The National Key Deer Refuge is open year-round throughout the day. The staff at the Nature Center on Big Pine Key can make recommendations based on the species you are looking for. Many locations in the NKDR offer great birdwatching, including parts of the Florida Keys Birding and Wildlife Trail, which includes three of the refuge areas: the Mannillo and Watson Nature Trails, Long Beach Trail, and Blue Hole, which has a wildlife viewing platform overlooking a pond in an abandoned quarry. In addition to a wide variety of migrating songbirds, shorebirds, hawks, ospreys, and falcons, you’ll see plenty of native birds, such as great white herons, reddish egrets, beautiful frigatebirds, white-crowned pigeons, gray kingbirds, white-eyed vireos, and blue-gray gnatcatchers.

The Key West National Wildlife Refuge

The Key West National Wildlife Refuge protects several habitats for a variety of birds, such as magnificent frigatebirds, white-crowned pigeons, ospreys, and great white herons. Certain vessels, notably Personal Watercraft (PWCs), are prohibited to safeguard delicate bird nesting, resting and feeding places, and sea turtle nesting areas. Additionally, there are areas where boat access is limited or prohibited.

The Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge

Known colloquially as the “backcountry,” the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge was created in 1938 to provide a refuge for great white herons and other animals. It is made up of about 200,000 acres of open ocean and islands. The refuge offers vital places for nesting, foraging, and resting for hundreds of different bird species. Animal-related activities, such as boating (with certain limitations), scuba diving, snorkeling, photography, and saltwater fishing, are permitted.

The Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Located on upper Key Largo, the 6,700-acre Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge was created in 1980 and includes 650 acres of open water. Various habitat types can be found there, such as salt marsh, mangrove forest, and tropical hardwood hammock. Although this refuge is closed to the public, guests can still enjoy the native pollinator garden and a refuge kiosk every day of the week throughout the day.

Dry Tortugas National Park

For many trans-Gulf migratory species, the tiny islands of Dry Tortugas National Park are the first dry ground they see, making migratory fallouts in late April and early May once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Indeed, observers have noted mornings with 25 warblers and have frequently sighted an Antillean short-eared owl. Frequent observations comprise ruddy turnstones, frigate birds, and peregrine falcons. The sole noteworthy sooty tern breeding colony in America is located on Bush Key in the Tortugas.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

Nearly 3,000 acres of natural mangrove swamp, hardwood hammock, and rocky coast await birders at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, which is situated at MM 102.5 on Key Largo and is well-known for its underwater allure. Cuckoo enthusiasts can spot Mangrove Cuckoos, Gray Kingbirds, and Short-Tailed Hawks along the walking routes.

Long Key State Park

Explore the mangrove swamp, mudflat, rockland hammock, beach, and coastal berm habitats at Long Key State Park (MM 67.5 in the Middle Keys). Along with reddish and other egrets, the stunning Roseate Spoonbill may be seen at low tide, lowering its round-tipped bill into the shallows in search of food.

Curry Hammock State Park

The Florida Keys Hawkwatch team monitors the southernmost migration flights of record numbers of peregrine falcons and other raptors in the mainland United States from a perch at Curry Hammock State Park in the Middle Keys. Hawk observers tally the thousands of buteos, accipiters, raptors, and eagles that soar over the Keys, in addition to peregrine falcons, whose yearly migrating populations are believed to outnumber those of any other region in the United States.

Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park

Birdwatchers can see breeding populations of Black-Whiskered Vireos at Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park, which is situated on Route 905 at MM 106 bayside. They can also observe migrating species like warblers, white-crowned pigeons, terns, noddies, boobies, and other rare Keys shorebirds and songbirds. A few fortunate individuals have shared rare sightings of the Thick-Billed Vireo, Zenaida Dove, and LaSagra’s Flycatcher.

Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park

In Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park, a wide variety of year-round and wintering birds can be found. Every year, various migrants use it as a resting place or feeding stop before or after they cross the Gulf of Mexico in the spring and fall. Amidst the rich foliage, you can have a serene stroll along the shaded trails through the tropical hardwood hammock, perfect for listening to the sounds of birdsongs. White-crowned pigeons coexist in the sun-dappled habitat alongside warblers, vireos, and thrushes. Look up in the canopy in the summertime for Black-Whiskered Vireos that are foraging.

Discover hidden-gem beaches,  explore the Florida Keys food scene, find the perfect accommodation, experience the Keys’ stunning waters, and much more.

The Most Common Types of Birds in the Florida Keys

Most people know that the Florida Keys are renowned for their breathtaking underwater scenery, including the only live coral barrier reef in the mainland United States.

Did you know the Keys rank among the best places in the world to go year-round bird watching?

The Florida Keys have an abundance of rare bird species offering an opportunity for birdwatchers, outdoor enthusiasts, and nature photographers to experience tours and native animals in one of Florida’s most valuable ecosystems. Here are some of the most common types of birds found in the Florida Keys:

Roseate Spoonbill

Roseate Spoonbill

A distinctive pink bird with a flat, spoon-shaped bill, the Roseate Spoonbill is a common sight in shallow water habitats. Its striking coloration comes from the pigments in the aquatic prey it consumes, giving it a rosy hue. With a wingspan of about 50 inches, this wader is captivating with its unique appearance and graceful movements.

Osprey

osprey

The Osprey is a large raptor recognizable by its dark eyes and an impressive wingspan around 71 inches. Its brown and white plumage and distinctive dark eye mask make it a prominent and skilled hunter in the Florida Keys skies.

Magnificent Frigatebird

The Magnificent Frigatebird is a large seabird with a wingspan of up to 90 inches and a forked tail. Found soaring majestically in the sky, males boast a bright red throat pouch during the breeding season, adding a pop of color to their otherwise black plumage.

Brown Pelican

brown pelican

Recognizable by its long bill and distinctive dive-bombing fishing technique, the Brown Pelican is a coastal bird commonly observed in the Florida Keys. With a wingspan of about 79 inches, these birds glide over the water’s surface and plunge headfirst to catch fish.

Brown Noddy

brown noddy

The Brown Noddy is frequently spotted foraging over open waters. Its chocolate-brown plumage and subtle features make it a relatively inconspicuous yet integral part of the avian life in the Florida Keys. Nesting in colonies on remote islands, these birds contribute to the coastal ecosystem, showcasing simplicity in their design and behavior.

Black Noddy

Similar to its brown counterpart, the Black Noddy shares an uncomplicated appearance with black plumage and a distinctive white cap. Known for its agile and acrobatic flight, this seabird complements the coastal scenery of the Florida Keys.

Great Blue Heron

One of the more recognizable waders in the Florida Keys, the Great Blue Heron is a tall and statuesque bird often found patiently stalking its prey in marshes and shallow waters. Sporting blue-gray plumage, a long neck, a dagger-like bill, and a wingspan of around 72 inches, this heron’s straightforward design aligns with its effective hunting strategies.

White Ibis

Recognizable by its long, curved bill and plain white plumage, the White Ibis is a common bird in the marshes and estuaries of the Florida Keys. With a wingspan of around 38 inches, it epitomizes simplicity in appearance, showcasing the adaptability and resourcefulness of avian life in coastal ecosystems.

Snowy Egret

The Snowy Egret boasts white plumage, a slender black bill, and distinctive yellow feet. Often found in shallow waters, it has a wingspan of approximately 41 inches and exemplifies the balance between simplicity and effectiveness in its foraging techniques.

Cormorants

Sleek and streamlined, Cormorants are black waterbirds commonly seen with outstretched wings drying in the sun. Their straightforward appearance belies their expert diving abilities as they hunt underwater for fish.

Anhinga

Known as the “snakebird,” the Anhinga is a simple yet intriguing bird with a long neck and sharp beak. Often seen perched with wings spread wide to dry, this bird showcases an efficient design for swimming and hunting. With a wingspan of around 40 inches, the Anhinga exemplifies adaptability, combining simplicity with specialized features for survival in its wetland habitats.

Seagulls

Common coastal birds with a straightforward appearance, seagulls are adaptable scavengers found along beaches and coastal areas. From the Herring Gull to the Laughing Gull, their unassuming design aligns with their versatile feeding habits. Seagulls, with their white and gray plumage, demonstrate simplicity in form and versatility in their interactions with coastal environments.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

A striking woodpecker with a vibrant red crown, the Red-Bellied Woodpecker is known for drilling into trees for insects and larvae. With a simple yet eye-catching appearance, this woodpecker adds color to the Florida Keys’ wooded areas.

Wood Stork

A large wader with distinctive bald heads and long bills, the Wood Stork is often seen foraging in shallow waters. With plain white plumage, this bird’s straightforward appearance aligns with its effective hunting techniques. Despite its simplicity, the Wood Stork is crucial in maintaining the ecological balance of wetland habitats in the Florida Keys.

Gray Kingbird

A sleek and vocal songbird, the Gray Kingbird is often seen perched on wires and branches. With gray plumage and a white band at the tip of its tail, this bird’s simple yet charming appearance complements its melodious calls.

Key West Piping Plover

A small, sand-colored shorebird, the Key West Piping Plover is a threatened species known for nesting on sandy beaches. With a straightforward design adapted to its coastal habitat, this bird’s unassuming appearance belies its significance in conservation efforts.

Sooty Tern

With dark plumage and a distinctive black cap, the Sooty Tern is a pelagic seabird nesting on remote islands. Its straightforward appearance reflects its specialization in long-distance migrations and efficient foraging over open waters.

Masked Booby

A large seabird with striking black facial markings, the Masked Booby is known for its impressive plunge dives into the ocean. With a straightforward yet effective design for fishing, this bird’s appearance aligns with its specialization in pelagic environments. With a wingspan of approximately 59 inches, the Masked Booby exemplifies simplicity in form and precision in hunting.

The Rare Birds Of The Florida Keys

For good reason, one of the Florida Keys’ main draws is its abundance of wild birds. While on vacation in the Keys, you can witness a wide range of Florida birds, some uncommon to see elsewhere. 

Bring your camera, binoculars, canvas, and paint if you enjoy observing and photographing some of nature’s most unique bird species; use the guide below if you wish to spot some of the rarest birds in the Florida Keys.

Great White Heron

A larger, all-white version of the more common Great Blue Heron, the Great White Heron is a majestic wader found in the shallow coastal waters of the Florida Keys. Its simple yet elegant appearance and rarity make it a sought-after sight for birdwatchers. Standing tall with a wingspan of approximately 66 inches, this heron exemplifies understated beauty in its predominantly white plumage.

White-Crowned Pigeon

The White-Crowned Pigeon is a very shy bird that nests only in mangrove forests. It is more difficult for birders to locate since it favors small islands off the mainland. They are dark grey with white on the crown of the head, and they are slightly bigger than the well-known rock pigeon. Adults have a pink beak with a white tip and light yellow eyes. All juveniles are gray, but as they become older, their eyes and crowns lighten. All have pink feet.

Limpkin

Limpkins are two-foot-tall, brown-and-white speckled birds related to cranes and rails. They have a slender, gray beak with a small bend at the tip and long, dark grey legs. Because their primary food source is apple snails, limpkins favor the margins of wetlands and freshwater lakes that are heavily vegetated. They get their name from the slow, step-pause, step-pause limping action they employ to wade to catch their prey.

Key West Quail-Dove

 The Florida Keys and a few other isolated Caribbean locations are the only places you can find this elusive and rare bird. It’s a tiny, brownish dove with wings that are dotted with white. You will hear them before you see them.

American Flamingos

Although uncommon in Florida, a small colony has made the Florida Keys their home, where they occasionally appear and always draw attention from birdwatchers. These birds are distinguished by their vivid pink feathers and unusually curled beaks. Seeing an American Flamingo in the wild is a treat for anyone who enjoys birdwatching in the Florida Keys because they were nearly extinct because of hunting.

Reddish Egret

In the Florida Keys, wetlands and shallow coastal waters are home to this huge, long-legged wading bird. Its shaggy appearance is attributed to its habit of hopping and dancing in the water to attract prey.

Würdemann’s Heron

The Würdemann’s Heron is a cross between the Great Blue and White Heron. The consequence of mating these two species is the unique color morph pattern of the Würdemann’s Heron. They are found all over the state, and the Key West National Wildlife Refuge is a great place to see them if you’re birdwatching in the Florida Keys.

Black-Whiskered Vireo

This small greenish bird has characteristic white “whiskers” on its face and a black mask. It is a favorite of birdwatchers and can be seen in woodlands and tropical forests across the Keys.

Mangrove Cuckoo

In the Florida Keys, mangrove swamps and other coastal areas are the primary habitats of this shy bird. It is identified by its sound, “coo-coo-coo-coo.” It is frequently heard but not seen. The Southeast is home to various cuckoo species, such as yellow-billed ones.

Florida Scrub Jay

The Florida Scrub Jay shares the same feisty nature as its Blue Jay cousin, although they are smaller and less flashy. Males and females are similar in size, with an average length of 10 to 12 inches. Scrub oak habitats are regions of open sandy soil with shrubs and oaks under 15 feet in height and are the only places where Florida Scrub Jays may be found.

Everglade Snail Kite

The Everglade Snail Kite (now just called Snail Kite) is a small raptor. Males have dark grey bodies that fade into black at the head and wingtips; the base and tip of the tail are white. Females have red eyes with a white stripe covering their eyes. Snail kites are unique to the area around freshwater wetlands because they feed only on apple snails. The kites have developed a distinctive, deeply curved beak with a pointed black tip that allows them to crack their shells easily.

Smooth-Billed Ani

The Smooth-Billed Ani has an average solid black body of 12 to 14 inches long. It has an unusual head shape, a strong beak with a top ridge, and a slender body with a long tail. Because they lack the ridge on their bill, juveniles are sometimes mistaken for grackles. They like bushy regions near open fields, especially where cattle attract bugs because their primary food sources are insects and berries.

Grasshopper Sparrow

The rarest bird in Florida is the Grasshopper Sparrow. A widespread sickness has wiped out these birds. The length of a Grasshopper Sparrow is about five inches. Their slender tails are covered with gray and black feathers. They have stooped heads. More often than not, these birds are heard than seen. Keep an ear out for a two- or three-note call followed by a buzz that sounds like an insect. Meadows, pastures, and other open spaces are their home.

Painted Bunting

If you like bright colors, you should look out for Painted Buntings. The males are among the most colorful birds in the United States, with blue heads, red bellies, and greenbacks. Young birds and females have milder undertones and are a solid yellow-green color. These birds are five inches or so in length. Usually found in weedy areas or less dense woodlands, it is common for Painted Buntings to be caught for captivity. Look for these birds by listening to their loud, high-pitched calls.

florida keys birding hotspots

Unlocking the Wonders of Florida Keys Birding

The Florida Keys are a great place to go birdwatching. It is a haven for bird watchers and is comparable to an open-air safari. The backcountry area, which is not easily accessible to motorized boat traffic, is mainly unexplored, pristine, and brimming with exciting flora and fauna. 

The Florida Keys offer plenty of opportunities for birdwatching, with over 400 species of birds identified. The avian diversity in the area can be observed and appreciated by birdwatching enthusiasts. The Florida Keys provide an engaging and fulfilling birding experience that will undoubtedly leave you with lifelong memories, regardless of your level of expertise.

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Florida Keys Birding FAQs

Some of the rarest birds found in the Florida Keys include the Key West Quail-Dove, White-tailed Tropicbird, Red-billed Tropicbird, Black-whiskered Vireo, and the Antillean Nighthawk. These species are considered rare or uncommon, making sightings of them particularly special for birdwatchers.

  • Bird populations vary by season, so plan your visit during peak migration periods for the best diversity.
  • Bring a good pair of binoculars and a field guide to help identify.
  • Consider joining local birding groups or hiring a guide for insider knowledge on prime birding spots.
  • Birds are often more active during these times, providing better opportunities for sightings.
  • Keep a respectful distance from nesting sites and sensitive habitats to avoid disturbing the birds.
  1. Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden: Explore the trails for resident and migratory birds.
  2. Fort Zachary Taylor State Park: Coastal areas are ideal for gull, tern, and shorebird sightings.
  3. Key West National Wildlife Refuge: Take a boat trip to spot Brown Pelicans, Sooty Terns, and Magnificent Frigatebirds.

While Key West as a whole is not designated as a bird sanctuary, it provides crucial habitats for various bird species. The Key West National Wildlife Refuge, along with other natural areas on the island, offers protected environments for both resident and migratory birds. Conservation efforts and awareness contribute to maintaining the ecological balance for avian life in the region.

Janelle
Author: Janelle

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