Spotlight on Bird Watching
Visitors may flock to the Emerald Coast for our sugar-sand beaches and unspoiled landscapes, but our unique natural resources extend far beyond coastlines and waterways. The Choctawhatchee Audubon Society calls our region the most biologically rich area in the U.S. in terms of the number of living creatures. From sea turtles to bottlenose dolphin to great blue herons, the species who pass through our area are plentiful and diverse.
Our local communities embrace ecotourism, which can be defined as sustainable tourism. It includes authentic experiences that are distinctive to the local region, and it differs from mass-market tourism in that it exists because of the place. Simply put, it cannot be outsourced.
Consider bird-watching, for example. The Emerald Coast is a hotspot for this pastime because of the variation in habitats and its position within migration routes. Our location near both saltwater and freshwater make this an ideal habitat for a variety of birds.
Notably, Florida is home to the third largest number of bird species behind Texas and California–states with much more land mass. The region is home to coastal seabirds, shore birds, wetland birds, birds-of-prey, migratory birds and introduced species. The warm temperatures allow native birds to stay year-round and provide nesting locations for migratory birds.
Coastal seabirds nest on the shoreline and are often seen diving just offshore for saltwater fish or gathered in groups on piers. Those common to the panhandle include the double-breasted cormorant, aningha and eastern brown pelican.
Shore birds also live on the shoreline but they do not hunt in the ocean. Native species include the red knot, the American oystercatcher and the dunline.
Wetland birds require freshwater wetland habitats like marshes, swamps, lakes and rivers to survive. Species like the great blue heron, snowy egret and white ibis build nests of grass and mud at the water’s edge as do other waterfowl, like ducks.
Perhaps most well-known, the Panhandle’s birds-of-prey include the osprey, bald eagle, swallow-tailed kite and red-shouldered hawk. They live in the treetops of forest regions near freshwater sources because they feed on amphibians and fish. Florida boasts one of the highest populations of bald eagles in the U.S.
Introduced species include those that aren’t native to the area but that were introduced here, typically by humans who released them into the wild. They can be dangerous to the area because they have no natural predators, allowing them to overpopulate. As a result, they often negatively impact native birds. Our muscovy duck is an example.
Each year, our area hosts a variety of ecotourism events that connect locals and visitors with our varied natural resources. Programs like the Choctawhatchee Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count tallies the welfare and presence of birds in the area. Volunteers assist with the count that collects photos, recordings, and as many details as possible about the local bird population.
The Emerald Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau also hosts Nighttime Educational Beach Walks that educate people about sea turtle migration, egg-laying, and the species’ importance to local ecosystems. The presentation teaches people to recognize tracks, identify threats to the population, and watch for them during visits to the beach.