Birds of Sanibel
By: Rob Pailes & Kristie Seaman Anders
Not everyone visits Sanibel Island just to enjoy the sunny beaches, art galleries, and top-notch restaurants this tropical island paradise has to offer. Every year thousands of visitors come to Sanibel to head outdoors and enjoy watching some of the 300+ species of birds that either inhabit or visit this coastal barrier island. In fact, this area is considered one of the top birding destinations in the world. A trip to Sanibel is not complete without spending time enjoying the spectacular birdlife for which the island is so well known.
First, you should go to the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge and the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation. Both locations are excellent examples of the islands' varying ecosystems and contain lots of birds and other wildlife. It’s best to go either early in the morning, later in the afternoon or at low tide, but don’t forget mosquito repellant. Take binoculars if you have them, especially if you are watching shorebirds. Take your time, look closely and you can truly enjoy the beauty of each bird’s plumage and its intriguing behavior.
The following bird descriptions will help you enjoy looking for and viewing these island treasures. The birds included here are generally the larger and easier birds to locate and identify. When visiting the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, you can pick up more information on the many other species found throughout the area.
You can also visit www.santiva-images.com for a look at the award-winning bird photography of local photographer Robert Pailes. View stunning pictures of Sanibel’s birds and other wildlife, as well as shop for fine art wildlife prints, posters and greeting cards. Good luck, and have fun birding Sanibel!
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. 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 pale brown stripe 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 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. 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. Two other morphs can sometimes be sighted in this area, the great white heron and the Ward’s heron.
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.