Our beaches are perfect for relaxing, sunbathing, and swimming. But the shoreline, fragile sand dunes, vibrant salt marshes, and sun-dappled maritime forests are also home to a fascinating variety of species. Here are the top tips and locations for viewing wildlife and birds on Florida’s Historic Coast.
Go Birding On Anastasia Island
Anastasia Island and Anastasia State Park are favorite locations for birders. Wood storks are a threatened species, but after heavy rain they can often be seen gathered at the retention pond beside Route 312 at the western end of the bridge from Anastasia Island. Bright pink roseate spoonbills like this pond, too. Flocks of vivid green Monk’s parrots can often be seen (and heard) flying along A1A on Anastasia Island. Always in a hurry, they sound as if they are constantly arguing.
Bring your camera when you visit the Wading Bird Rookery at The Alligator Farm & Zoological Park. From March through June, you’ll see native herons, egrets, spoonbills and wood storks as they nest in the oaks overlooking the alligator lagoon where their young are safe from tree-climbing predators.
Birding in Ponte Vedra Beach
The GTM Research Reserve protects 74,000 acres of conservation lands and waters. So it’s no surprise that this area attracts wildlife and a variety of birds as well as those who love to view them. One of the highlights of the area is a bald eagle’s nest, which is visible from the telescope at Visitor Center. Further north on A1A, birders frequent Bird Island Park to enjoy the serene beauty and stillness of its water features and hammocks that attract birds of all species.
Nature Trails at Fort Matanzas National Monument
For excellent bird watching head to Fort Matanzas National Monument on A1A at the south end of Anastasia Island. Admission is free and you can follow the trail south along the water. Bird life is plentiful in the trees. Be sure to look for owls’ nests. At the shoreline, wading birds silently stalk their prey, and dolphins and manatees frequently swim by. There is a seasonal free ferry to take visitors to the old Spanish fort on Rattlesnake Island – another great opportunity for wildlife viewing.
Viewing Sea Turtles
Sea turtle nests marked with brightly-colored tape and wooden stakes are a common sight along our beaches. Each nest contains approximately 100 eggs and they are marked to protect them from passing vehicles and curious people. If you are lucky enough to see a nest hatching or a tardy sea turtle returning to the sea, please do not disturb them! Any distraction from their instinct-driven rush to the water could prove fatal for these amazing creatures.
Have you noticed holes in the soft sand – some as large as two inches in diameter? These are ghost crab burrows, and they’re called “ghosts” because their camouflage makes them nearly impossible to detect. In the pools left behind when the tide goes out, blue crabs, juvenile fish, and ray-like skates can often be seen waiting for the tide to return so they can escape to the sea.
Dolphins & Manatees
Take a boat tour or kayak tour to spot dolphins and manatees in the water. Dolphins will sometimes come close to the beach – just beyond the breakers where their fins and upper backs can be seen rising and falling in the waves. The Bridge of Lions, the seawall lining downtown St. Augustine, and the inlet at Vilano Beach are all good spots to watch for dolphins and manatees.
Endangered Beach Mice
The endangered Anastasia beach mouse only comes out at night to forage for food. At dawn, you might see the fragile tracings of their paws and long tails in the dunes.
Large “turtles” you see on the landward side of the dunes are actually gopher tortoises. Never put them in the ocean – they can’t swim!