Fort De Soto Park
FORT DE SOTO PARK
This is one of the best known birding locations in the state of Florida. Just over 335 species have been verified as having occurred at the park. The late Larry Hopkins, one of Pinellas’ premier birders, once quipped, “They all show up at Fort De Soto eventually.” Each year, it seems, something new gets added to the park’s checklist. The rarities list is impressive, not just for Pinellas, but for the state of Florida. Here’s a list of some of the best; King Eider, American Flamingo, Western Grebe, LeConte’s Sparrow, Cassin’s Kingbird, Long-billed Murrelet, Horned Lark, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Lazuli Bunting, Curlew Sandpiper, Kirtland’s Warbler, Bananaquit, Brown Noddy, Tropical Kingbird, Hammond’s Flycatcher, Thick-billed Vireo, Masked Booby, Fox Sparrow, Horned Lark, Elegant Tern and Heermann’s Gull to name just a few. How many of those do you have on your Florida list? Or even life list?
Every serious birder in the state of Florida has visited the park at least once, most often in late spring when fallout conditions are at their peak. There is a bird-finding guide and checklist available for free at the park office and also available for download on the park’s web site. The best locations to see migrant passerines are the Mulberry Trees Area near the Bay Pier, the East Beach Picnic Area, the Gulf Pier Picnic Area, the North Beach Oak Hammock and at Arrowhead Picnic Area. Though spring gets all the attention, the fall season can be just as rewarding and a good number of birds are always present in winter and summer, too. Spend a day and you’ll surely be rewarded.
FALL: Disclaimer; the fall season is when the mosquitoes are at their worst, especially October. So, be forewarned to have insect repellent handy just in case. Some years are worse than others, it depends on the rain amount. Migrant warblers and other songbirds may start showing up by August, but it is usually the first half of September when things start to warm up. Make sure you check the open area and beach around the East Beach Turnaround in the early morning for swallows and shorebirds. October is considered “rarity month” in Pinellas and so anything might show up, especially after a late season tropical storm or early season cold front. Check the Gulf Pier and North Beach flats for the many hundreds of Common, Sandwich and Forster’s Terns that show up each September thru November. You may possibly see a Franklin’s Gull on the beach by the Gulf Pier. Watch the wires along the road for Western Kingbird and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.
WINTER: By the first of November, which is still the Fall season, the park’s wintering birds start arriving. Sometimes as many as 500 American White Pelicans roam the waters of the park, along with lots of shorebirds including Short-billed Dowitcher, Red Knot, Ruddy Turnstone, Dunlin and Black-bellied Plover to name a few. Savannah, Nelson’s and Saltmarsh Sparrows are possible, but not probable. The latter two prefer spartina habitat, which is protected within the park and not to be trampled on. Local birders still visit the park in winter in hopes of finding an over-wintering Lark Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher or Groove-billed Ani. All bets are off when trying to figure out what the next best bird might be that shows up to winter at the park.
SPRING: The first migrants, usually Prothonotary, Hooded and Swainson’s Warblers are noted by mid to late March. Orchard Orioles and Barn Swallows arrive by the first of April and then anything goes after that! Prime time is mid April to early May. Most birders like to stroll the area where the Mulberry Trees are, which is in front of, and behind, the ranger’s residence at the Bay Pier. A fountain placed behind the residence, in memory of local birding legend Larry Hopkins, is a great place to see migrants close. They come down to drink, especially late in the day. By May expect to see Magnolia, Yellow, Blackpoll, Bay-breasted and even the occasional Connecticut Warbler. There is usually one or two pairs of Gray Kingbirds preparing to nest by May, usually around the Gulf Pier and fort. Watch for Semipalmated and White-rumped Sandpipers at the East Beach Turnaround in late April and May – and in some years even in early June.
SUMMER: Even in the hottest of months there’s something to see at Fort De Soto Park. A few shorebirds will over-summer, all the west central Florida wading birds are present, nesting Laughing Gulls and Least Terns are on hand, and as many as 500 Magnificent Frigatebirds roost on the small mangrove islands surrounding the park. On most summer days you’ll encounter roving flocks of Nanday Parakeets, a few nest at the park (by the campground) but most fly in from the mainland. Roseate Spoonbills and Reddish Egrets are expected at the north end of the park or around one of the many secluded lagoons. Check closely any Mottled Duck types you might encounter. Most have now hybridized with Mallards, so check your field marks closely. Other nesting species you might see include Gray Kingbird, Great Crested Flycatcher, Prairie Warbler, Loggerhead Shrike, Willet, Wilson’s Plover and Clapper Rail (north end).
INSIDER TIPS: There is a $5 fee for entering the park. Yearly passes can be purchased. Restrooms are located throughout the park and a limited amount of food is available at the Gulf Pier and fort snack shops. Bring mosquito repellent and sun screen. Pick up a copy of the bird-finding guide at the main headquarters building which is only open M-F, 9-3, but the guide can be downloaded off the internet. Allow yourself at least half a day to bird the park adequately. A full day during spring migration.