It is not solely the pristine beaches, superior shelling, and laid-back lifestyle that bring visitors to Sanibel Island. It is also the wide variety of bird species found visiting and inhabiting the islands that intrigues visitors and gives the islands their reputation as one of the best birding destinations in the world. From the American Bittern to the Yellow-crowned Night Heron, you never know what you may find.
Whether you are a seasoned scout or just starting out, locals will point you to the “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge to seek out the islands’ best wildfowl. Stop in at the free Interactive Education Center to borrow a pair of binoculars, pick up a checklist of all the different species you can try to spot, and get your journey started. It is best to visit when the tide is low – the shallow pools trap fish and make great hunting grounds for wading and shore birds. From here, venture to the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, another great example of the varying bionetworks the islands have to offer. Please remember, Sanibel prohibits hand-feeding of any wild birds including gulls. Please observe from a distance.
Sometimes finding the smaller, more rare birds takes dedication and perseverance, but fear not – there are plenty who are not shy and love to show off their beautiful plumage. The following is a list of birds that are generally larger and easier to locate. These descriptions will help even the most inexperienced first-timers to identify their feathered friends.
It is not only the visitors that love and respect the ornithology of Sanibel. Over half the island has been preserved as a wildlife habitat, and local artists and photographers showcase their work in different museums and shops all over the island. Find original prints, stationery, and jewelry themed to match the wildlife. It is true what you have heard – Sanibel really is for the birds!
This bird is tall, elegant and white, with a yellow beak and black legs. During the spring and summer months, fine lacy, white feathers trail down the back of the bird. These breeding plumes were highly prized by plume hunters a century ago. Today, hundreds enjoy the vast feeding grounds protected by the refuge and Florida’s Aquatic Preserve program.
Also known as the fish hawk, the osprey has been fairly successful at raising its young here on the islands. Because an osprey has a white belly, dark back and wings, visitors commonly confuse the bird with the southern bald eagle. The osprey has a chocolate-colored eye stripe and darker tail that distinguishes it from our national bird. In the past, as suitable nesting trees declined, ospreys began using power line poles. Unfortunately, young birds were often electrocuted. Currently, volunteers assist the birds by providing artificial nesting platforms which can be seen along many of our major thoroughfares.
Seen only in the winter months and primarily in the upper reaches of Pine Island Sound, the white pelican is second only to the condor in size as the largest bird in North America. The white pelican is sometimes seen in the early mornings at the refuge in the winter and in Tarpon Bay at low tides. It is all white except for a black strip on the back edge of its wings. The beak is yellow and the attached pouch is used to scoop fish out of the sound.
Sometimes known as the snakebird, the anhinga is a dark, duck-like bird. Its yellow pointed beak is used to stab fish as the bird swims underwater. The neck is extremely thin except when expanded to swallow a fish. Easily confused with the cormorant, the anhinga has a longer, wider tail with a white on the edge.
This elegant pink bird is often mistaken for a flamingo. Standing about two feet tall, the bird has a grey, spatulate-shaped beak and red legs. Numerous in spring, summer and fall, spoonbills migrate to Florida Bay and Tarpon Bay in the winter months for nesting and rearing their young. Several “bachelors” stay in the area of the Ding Darling Refuge all year.
Mostly white in color, this medium-sized wading bird has a long, curved orange-red beak and matching legs. In flight, black patches at the ends of the white wings are easily seen. Blue eyes and redder beaks during breeding times make these birds quite striking against the blue-greens of the water. An immature white ibis is brown in color and its beak and legs are a faded orange.
Rarer than most of the other wading birds, the reddish egret has amused visitors with its unconventional fishing methods. The bird is slate gray in color, about two feet tall, with a brick red head and throat. The reddish egret feeds by confusing its prey. It dances, stumbles, and flaps its wings to the extent that a little fish doesn’t know what the bird will do next. At that moment of confused hesitation the fish becomes lunch for the reddish egret. Look for a bird that flops around like it’s drunk; chances are you are seeing a reddish egret feeding in the mud flats of the refuge.
Little Blue Heron
A smaller bird with a purple head covering, the body of the little blue is almost steel blue in color. It also has characteristic greenish legs and its beak is blue tipped in black.
Also known as a marsh chicken or common gallinule, the moorhen may be encountered as one walks the trails of the freshwater wetlands and the Bailey Tract. The bird is all black except for a white patch on either side near the rear. Its face is covered with a colorful yellow and red plate that continues out to the tip of the beak. One red stripe encircles its yellow legs. Its toes are long, designed to walk on water plants. It clucks like a domestic chicken and is probably the noisiest bird of the wetlands.
Smaller than the great egret, the snowy egret also has a white body and black legs. Its beak is black, with some yellow beneath the eyes. It can also be distinguished by its bright yellow feet. Called “Yellow Slippers” by Seminole Indians, this bird has breeding plumes that adorn its back and usually curl just above its rump.
The most widely recognized coastal bird, the brown pelican is known most for its beak and pouch. The pelican is often seen diving into the water or perched atop a channel marker. The immature pelican has a mottled brown head, and the mature adult bird has a white head with a chestnut brown suede stripe down the back of its neck. Its webbed feet are situated far back on the body, designed more for paddling than walking on land.
Great Blue Heron
The largest of the wading birds in this area, the regal great blue heron is hard to miss. The bird can reach 3 to 4 feet in height, has a gray-blue body with lighter head, and a navy blue stripe above its eye. Its beak is gray-black and its legs are green-yellow to blue in color.
A small bird commonly thought to be a duck, the cormorant is actually related to pelicans. Its throat pouch can expand to accommodate a foot-long fish! A cormorant has a yellow beak with a hook on the end and orange patches on its jowls. Its neck is stockier than an anhinga’s and its tail is shorter. This bird also chases fish underwater for its food.
Once known as the Louisiana heron, this bird is commonly confused with the little blue heron until it turns to face you. A white stripe down its throat and chest, widening to cover its belly, differentiates this bird. The tricolored heron has a white topknot of feathers during its breeding times that looks like the hair of Dennis the Menace, standing up and not knowing which way to lie down.
One of the most common birds of prey in the area, the red-shouldered hawk in Florida is paler and smaller than its northern relatives. Rusty patches on its shoulders give this mottled brown bird its name. This hawk eats lizards, crabs, snakes and mice.