Florida can be an expensive place for birding, especially during peak season and at any time in the Miami area and the Keys.
The best way to deal with the expense is to make a few, very efficient, visits to the area rather than many, less focused, ones. We have a very good situation since Renee’s mother lives in Florida and we can count on reduced lodging costs when we visit her. Even so, we only visited Florida three times during our Big Year and tried to see as many of the specialties as we could each trip (with mixed results). We still have some glaring holes in our Florida specialties list, but we think the following advice is good, in general.
First, late winter and spring (March and April) are the best times to visit Florida in terms of the highest species richness. Many of the most sought-after rarities winter farther south and start to return by then and most of the winter specialties are still hanging on. So, you get the best of both seasons. You also miss most of the crowds of winter tourists and have better and sometimes cheaper lodging options (although the lodging costs can still be quite high in the south, especially the Keys). Late fall and early winter are also quite nice, though some of the more tropical birds are already gone by then. Summer can be good for breeding birds but the heat, humidity, and insects make camping more difficult and tend to increase lodging costs when you are “forced” to stay in motels. The peak season (right after Christmas and through February) tends to be crowded and more expensive for just about everything.
Second,Floridahas a very good system of county and state parks and federal camping options in National Parks and National Forests. You really should do at least some camping to save money and to get closer to the best birding areas. For example, camping in the Everglades National Park at the Flamingo campsite is very reasonable and it is much better than having to drive all the way from the nearest motels in, say, Homestead. Be warned, however, that even the camping in the Keys can set you back $40 or $50 just for a tent site; but that’s still better than $100 to $200 for a motel room. If you are flying in, it makes sense to rent a reasonably sized RV and tour the state. That way, you get your car rental and lodging all in one package. The saving could be substantial.
Third, plan to spend 10 days or more if you want to see the most species with the least cost. Florida is at the far southeast edge of the country and getting there is quite expensive for many folks. Doing a shorter trip and having to come back again when you miss something is always more expensive than a single, longer trip. (You’ll still miss some things, but longer trips are usually better in the long run.) Even when you are coming to Florida to chase a specific rarity it is always a good idea to see if there are other birds to seek nearby that can be reached at a modest added cost in time and money.
So, where do you go for your 10 days or more of birding in Florida? Here are our favorite spots:
1. The Florida Keys- especially make an effort to visit Key West and the Dry Tortugas during the spring. If you can do it during “fallout weather” you could be treated to one of the birding highlights of your lifetime. Camping at Fort Jefferson is a special treat. The conditions are somewhat primitive but it is worth it. Make sure to get reservations as far in advance as you can. Space is limited. Also, there are special rules set by both the National Park Service and the Yankee ferry company, so do your research. Keep an eye on eBird for rarities. There are a dozen or more special birds that are possible in the Keys.
2. Everglades National Park and surrounding areas – water birds are the highlight here, but it is also a great place to see Shiny Cowbird, Short-tailed Hawk, and (if you are lucky) anis.
3. The greater Miami-Fort Lauderdale area – especially good for the many exotic species that are possible in the urban and suburban environment. Traffic and development take their toll on both the birds and the birders, but if you can stand the conditions you will find some good birds. It is imperative that you do lots of research on eBird for the hard-to-find species. We don’t hire guides for most birding but this is one place where you might consider it for birds like White-winged Parakeet, Spot-breasted Oriole, Western Spindalis, Smooth-billed Ani, etc. (Larry Manfredi is the go-to guy for this area.)
4.Sanibel Island and Ding Darling NWR – water birds and Mangrove Cuckoo are the biggest draw here. It can be very expensive staying near here, so plan things carefully.
5. The southern end of Lake Okeechobee- the Stormwater Treatment Areas and other marshes are the big draw in this area. The best spot for Snail Kite.
6. If you are driving in from the west, make a stop at Appalachicola National Forest and look for Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Bachman’s Sparrow, Brown-headed Nuthatch, and others. These species are found in other areas, too. Do some eBird research to see where they are likely to be along your route.
7. OscarSchererState Parkand the Venice area for Florida Scrub-Jay. Again, there are other likely spots, so do your eBird research if you won’t be near this area during your stay in Florida.
8. Anywhere that a rarity is being reported – keep in touch with eBird, NARBA, Tropical Audubon Society, and other rare bird alerts throughout your stay.
Even if you follow all that advice, you aren’t guaranteed to clean up on all of the 30 or so Florida specialties (We still have about 10 left for our list!) but you should have made a good dent in those numbers.