Scrub Jay at Oscar Scherer State Park. Photo Credit: Robin Draper

Bird Rookery Close Up - Sarasota Bay Explorers. Photo Credit: Robin Draper

A crane at Venice. Photo Credit: Heather Young

Wildlife by the water in Sarasota County

Head to Sarasota County's beaches to spot a variety of animal life.

Sarasota County beaches are great for people watching, with all kinds of personalities (jocks, harried moms, sun-baked senior citizens) coming out to play on the sand. But they're also a great place for spotting many of the area's animal inhabitants, especially the actual, winged version of our beloved snowbirds.

Winter is A Great Birdwatching Season

"This time of year (winter) is a good time to be looking for migrating birds," says Kathi Rader-Gibson, a parks naturalist for Sarasota County. "We'll have a wide variety of plovers, terns, and sometimes different gulls coming down to Florida for the winter."

Stu Wilson, who helps the Sarasota Audubon Society monitor shorebirds and do its Christmas bird count, regularly spots species ranging from black-bellied plovers, willets, and sanderlings to laughing gulls, royal terns, and black skimmers at area beaches during the winter months. “Siesta Beach probably provides the best shorebirding in Sarasota County, especially near Access #5," he says. "Lido Beach can also be busy with birds."

Hitting the sand during the early-morning hours leads to better bird-watching than later in the day. "The trick to rewarding shorebirding is getting there before the human hordes arrive," says Wilson. "And be prepared to do some beach walking, as the birds tend to congregate. Tidal pools, wide stretches of beach, and sand spits/shoals all attract groups of shorebirds."

Don't Feed The Birds

Whatever types of birds you see, resist offering them a piece of your sandwich or a French fry. Anyone who's ever been swarmed by gulls while trying to eat their lunch at the beach knows the trouble feeding shorebirds can bring about.

"It causes havoc," says Rader-Gibson. "There's lots of food out there for them; we don't need to feed them our food. It's best for them to do their own searching for food and teach their youngsters to find their own food and not be dependent on ours."

Human food can also be bad for birds' digestive systems, which are designed for eating things like insects and shellfish. "So you're not only bothering your neighbors but you're also harming the wildlife by feeding them, which is something that most people don't realize," says Karen Fraley, manager/naturalist for Around the Bend Nature Tours (941-794-8773), which offers excursions for school and private groups.

And while many kiddos (and some adults) love running up to a group of birds resting on the beach and seeing them fly away, this actually isn't a very nice thing to do. "They need to use their energy for staying alive, feeding their family, and migrating," says Fraley. "If they use their energy because they're afraid they can become stressed, which can affect their survival."

Other Animal Sightings

Birds aren't the only animals beachgoers might encounter while spending time on our shores. While manatees move to the warmer waters of springs and rivers during the winter, dolphins can be found at our beaches any time of year. "A clue to where they might be is if there are birds diving, there's fish, so you might want to watch that area for dolphins," says Fraley. "You're more likely to see them if there's food around."

If you're lucky enough to spot one, act appropriately, especially if you yourself are in the water nearby. "Don't approach them when you see them," says Rader-Gibson. "All wildlife is best to observe from a distance."

Summer Is Also Great for Animal Spotting

If you visit Sarasota County's beaches during the summer months, you'll have even more opportunities for wildlife watching. From May 1 to Oct. 31, loggerhead and green sea turtles (and sometimes the rarer Kemp's ridley sea turtle) can be found nesting on our sands. Dedicated local organizations and volunteers monitor these nests and do everything possible to help them hatch safely. Lucky visitors might get to see that happen and watch tiny turtles make their way into the Gulf of Mexico.

Many shorebirds also nest here during the summertime. "The beaches on Longboat and Siesta Keys are two places that are really busy with nesting shorebirds then," says Fraley. "You can see large colonies of skimmers, which are really amazing-looking birds with long red beaks that skim the water to get fish. They nest in colonies right on the beach, and their nests are just scrapes in the sand."

Whatever kind of wildlife you're watching, whatever the time of year, a camera or binoculars can allow you to get a closer look, and help you keep a respectful distance so that these creatures remain residents of area beaches for many years to come.