Birdwatching at Celery Fields in Sarasota County.  Photo by Eddie Kirsch
Birdwatching at Celery Fields in Sarasota County. Photo by Eddie Kirsch
Bird-Watching 101: A Feathery Field Guide to Sarasota County
Bird-Watching 101: A Feathery Field Guide to Sarasota County
Birdwatching at Celery Fields in Sarasota County.  Photo by Eddie Kirsch
Birdwatching at Celery Fields in Sarasota County. Photo by Eddie Kirsch
Birdwatching at Celery Fields in Sarasota County.  Photo by Eddie Kirsch
Birdwatching at Celery Fields in Sarasota County. Photo by Eddie Kirsch

Bird-Watching 101: A Feathery Field Guide to Sarasota County

Sarasota County is home to many native Florida birds and one of the most popular pit stops for hundreds of migratory species. Learn more with our beginner’s field guide.

Welcome to Florida's Gulf Coast: a birder's paradise. Sarasota County is rich in its diversity of native Florida birds, and is also a well-populated pit stop for hundreds of migratory species who fly south every winter to roost in the year-round sunshine. From Gulf beach shores to mangrove flatlands and brackish estuaries; pine flatwoods, scrubland, hammocks and prairies—birdwatching is a fascinating and rewarding endeavor in Sarasota County.

Learn about some of the unique feathered friends who flock to our subtropical locale, where to spot them, and how to connect with other local bird-watching enthusiasts and avian experts in our Feathery Field Guide.

Birds of Sarasota

Birds typically spotted along the coasts of Sarasota County include waders, such as herons and egrets (long, slender necks, who navigate local shorelines on their graceful stilt legs); pelicans, gulls and terns, and the fierce aquatic raptors, osprey, who roam the seaward skies and plunge talons-first at speeds up to 50 mph to snatch fish from Gulf and inland waterways.

Keep an eye out near the water for wading birds both grandiose and gangly: Great Blue Herons and their more petite cousins, Little Blue, and the short and stocky Green Heron, as well as Great and Snowy Egrets, and the Cattle Egret—who is also a common sight in agricultural spaces, where this plumed bird rides on the backs of livestock while pecking at yummy ticks and pests. Brown and American White Pelicans, sandpipers, ibises and gulls also frequent Sarasota's coastal areas.

Curious about the sight of those large, long-necked "water turkeys" sunning themselves by the water with their wings spread? Those are anhingas and cormorants, who submerge their entire bodies underwater while hunting, and must dry their feathers before they're able to fly.

While encountering a flamingo outside of Sarasota Jungle Gardens is unlikely, it's a special treat to glimpse a splash of pink feathers in the Sarasota wild. The Roseate Spoonbill is a unique looking, rose-hued wading bird who uses its spoon-shaped beak to sift snacks of small fish, crustaceans and even slugs and mollusks from shallow mangroves and marsh muck.

Make your way inland toward southwest Florida's pine hammocks, prairies, and sand and pine scrubs to discover a variety of songbirds, woodpeckers, cranes and storks, finch, hummingbirds, and more majestic raptor species including bald eagles, hawks and kites, owls big and small, and the caracara—a falcon, native to South and Central America and the southernmost United States.

At night, nocturnal raptors like the Great Horned, Barred, Barn and the elusive Short-Eared Owl, as well as smaller cuties such as the Eastern Screech Owl and Burrowing Owl may be heard and occasionally even sighted in wooded areas.

A thriving cluster of the native Florida Scrub Jay, a federally-designated Threatened Species, makes its home in the scrub habitats of Sarasota County's Oscar Scherer State Park. The Scrub Jay is the only bird species entirely unique to the state of Florida, and due to its reluctance to travel beyond its home territory, the Scrub Jay is a rare sight outside a modest cluster of scrub habitats in central and southwest Florida.

Another threatened Florida native is the Wood Stork, a large wading bird who prefers mangrove habitats. The head and necks of the adult Wood Stork are bare, with scaly, dark gray skin contrasting the bird's white plumage. Unlike the Wood Stork, adult Sandhill Cranes have vibrant red crowns. Like the Wood Stork, Sandhill Crane are often spotted in family clusters, and sometimes in large flocks, near ponds and marshes, as well as grasslands and prairies, where they forage for invertebrates and grains.

Look toward the tapping sounds in the trees above to peek Florida woodpeckers, including species such as the big and flashy Pileated (think: "Woody the Woodpecker") Woodpecker, as well as smaller varieties like the Red-Bellied, Downy, Hairy, or Northern Flicker Woodpecker.

Have you ever heard a chorus of shrieking parrots that sound more like they belong in a tropical rainforest than a shopping mall parking lot, or a backyard in the Sarasota suburbs? Gaze skyward, where you may spot the vibrant green feathers of Monk Parakeets and Nanday Conures (also known as Black-Hooded Parakeets). Although not endemic to Florida, these small South American parrots formed invasive colonies throughout south Florida, after escaping captivity beginning in the 1970s, and are not an uncommon sight today in Sarasota.

A rare, but spectacular sight in Sarasota is the tiny, metallic green Ruby-Throated Hummingbird. Weighing in at ⅛ of an ounce, this humminbird migrates from the Yucatan Peninsula—in a 20-hour, 900-mile nonstop flight across the Gulf of Mexico—and winters in Florida before continuing north through the Eastern United States to mate. Pro tip: Your nectar-bearing flowers bring all the Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds to the yard. Try flame vine, passion vine, coral honeysuckle, and jasmine varieties to entice these teensy visitors.

Birdwatching in Sarasota: When and Where to Go

As goes the well-known adage: the early bird gets the worm. Avid birders in Sarasota County arrive with the dawn to tranquil spots such as state parks, Celery Fields, and the Venice Audubon Rookery to observe the day awake with the birds.

The winter months in Sarasota bring some of the most abundant bird watching opportunities, as thousands of migratory birds make their way south to and through Sarasota County, escaping the northern chill. However, with Sarasota County's year-round sunshine and ecological diversity, any time of year offers opportunities aplenty to encounter all kinds of our full-time feathered residents.

With over 215 species logged by birders from the Sarasota Audubon Society to date, Celery Fields is known among many as the place to go birdwatching in Sarasota County. The 360+ acre site serves as the region's primary stormwater collection and flood mitigation zone—a space consisting of open marshlands, deep ponds, shallow pools and canals, with over 20,000 aquatic plants and trees in its ecology.

Two Celery Fields boardwalks, at Palmer Boulevard and Raymond Road, provide excellent wildlife viewing opportunities. The Audubon Society recommends winter visits to spy migrating sparrows, Marsh and Sedge Wrens, and several species of rails, including Sora and Virginia.

Birders hoping to catch a glimpse of the threatened Florida Scrub Jay should pack up their binoculars for a trip to Oscar Scherer State Park. There are very few spaces, scattered solely throughout central and southwest Florida, that can claim an "abundance" of Scrub Jays—and Oscar Scherer is among the rare habitats where this elusive homebirdy can be found, along with over 200 other species of birds. The Friends of Oscar Scherer offers a neat Checklist of Birds at Oscar Scherer State Park in collaboration with the Sarasota Audubon Society.

Myakka River State Park ranges more than 58 square miles of wetlands, prairies, pinelands and hammocks housing migratory species, ducks, raptors, songbirds, wading birds, and more. During the peak birdwatching months of November through April, there is a bird naturalist available at the park's Bird Walk from 9:00 a.m. until 1:00 in the afternoon most days of the week. Guests can call the ranger station ahead of time at 941- 361-6511 to find out if the bird naturalist will be on duty during their visit.

Wildlife photographers from across the globe flock to the Venice Area Audubon Rookery to capture shots of Great Blue Heron and Egrets, Anhingas, Night Herons, and other gorgeous wading birds who populate the rookery island's deep lake. The Venice Rookery features a shaded pavillion that offers an intimate view of birds' activities on the lake, where they build nests, court and mate, hatch eggs and raise chicks.

Visit the "Living Museum" at Save Our Seabirds for an up-close and personal encounter with all types of birds who either live permanently or are undergoing rehabilitation in preparation for their return to the wild at this nonprofit wildlife conservation center. Save Our Seabirds' mission is to rescue, rehabilitate and release injured birds, and to educate the public about environmental sustainability and wildlife conservation. Save Our Seabirds' outdoor "Birdwalk" sanctuary space is filled with with native plants, accompanied by educational signage, providing a natural space for the birds in captivity, as well as migratory visitors, to roost.

The Science and Environment Council of Southwest Florida's ((ecko)) Gulf Coast Birding Tour offers a four-day eco-adventure that includes guided trips to Emerson Point Preserve and Felt's Audubon Preserve in neighboring Manatee County, Save Our Seabirds and Oscar Scherer State Park, Celery Fields, and Myakka State Park to learn about the birds of Sarasota. ((ecko)) tours connect visitors with naturalists, scientists and other local experts on curated, exciting and educational tours that highlight the best of Sarasota County's natural offerings.

Additional Birding Resources

Our Feathery Field Guide provides a great launching point for your southwest Florida birding adventure—but if you seek more resources, there are plenty of local options to learn more.

Spend some time with the Sarasota Audubon Society to learn about upcoming birding field trips and overnight excursions, conservation efforts, birding hotspots, Nature Center workshops and educational programs. The Sarasota Audubon Society also offers a handy and extensive local bird checklist, as well as an opportunity sign up for a rare bird-sighting alert email service, SRQ Bird Alerts.

The Venice Area Audubon Society operates through the Venice Area Audubon Rookery. Check in with the Venice Audubon Center for free environmental programs from September through May, and keep an eye on the events calendar for field trips and other group activities for bird enthusiasts.

The Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail is an excellent resource for birdwatchers and butterfly chasers in Florida. Explore the site to learn about trails and habitats, the species of birds and butterflies you may encounter throughout Florida, and wildlife viewing tips in this network of over 510 wildlife viewing spots across the state.

Thanks to 21st century tech, the modern birder now has access to a comprehensive field guide straight from their smartphone. Before venturing out to Celery Fields, Myakka River or Oscar Scherer State Park, or the Venice Rookery, consider downloading the Audubon Bird Guide App to help you identify whichever feathered friends you meet.

Bring Binoculars!

Birdwatching is among one of the most meditative, peaceful and rewarding activities one can explore in Sarasota County— and while winter is birding "season," birdwatching is a fantastic year-round hobby in our subtropical climes.

Our advice is to beat the bugs, the humidity and the heat by making early morning trips to Sarasota County's state parks, Celery Fields, the Venice Audubon Rookery, or even your own backyard, to view Sarasota's diversity of avian wildlife. Keep your field guide handy—and don't forget the binoculars. Happy birding!

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