Amelia Island offers a perfect habitat for some of the world’s most beautiful and fascinating birds. An incredible variety of birds choose Florida’s most northern barrier island for their home. It is estimated that more than 470 bird species have been identified in Florida, making it the state with the third largest different identified species in the United States. The Island is the gateway to the eastern section of the Great Florida Birding Trail, a 2,000 mile-long trail developed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Audubon of Florida, the Florida Park Service and Visit Florida.
It is not just Amelia Island and Florida that are fascinated by birds, National Geographic’s January 2018 cover story is “Why Birds Matter!” The magazine is partnering with the National Audubon Society, Birdlife International, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to declare 2018 the Year of the Bird – with stories, maps, books, events and social media content scheduled throughout the year.
This year is also the 100-year anniversary of the Migratory Bird Act. The act is a treaty signed between United States and Great Britain (Canada) to end the extensive commercial trade in feathers. Tens of thousands of birds were killed for their feathers used in fashion accessories. During this time the National Audubon Society was formed to protect birds. The act prohibited the hunting, killing, capturing, possession, sale, transportation and exportation of birds, feathers, eggs and nests.
So why do birds attract so much of our attention? They are a connection to the natural world. Birds do the thing we all wish we could do but can’t. They can fly and see the world from above. Dedicated bird watchers are called twitchers. They travel long distances to see a species and to add a new bird to their “life list”. Many visit Amelia Island to add to their lists. One sought after bird is the Purple Sandpiper, rare and protected, who nests at the far north of Fort Clinch State Park.
It is small wonder that artists and photographers have found Amelia Island the perfect place to capture the beauty of the areas birds. One of the area’s most prolific photographers is Steve Leimberg, known as the Birdman of Amelia. He has photographed birds of all descriptions all over the world, but his favorite spots are close to his home on Amelia Island.
“Those of us addicted to bird photography are ‘studiers,’” says Steve. “We watch, anticipate, prepare, shoot, and repeat – and learn both patience, failure and humility – over and over.”
Graphic artists also find the birds of Amelia Island a focus. Susan Hitchcock, a graphic designer by vocation and watercolorist by avocation, is drawn to coastal birds as subjects. Her watercolors are primarily birds she first photographs, and then paints. “I am entranced by the amazing variety of bird species native to the area,” says Susan. “The birds I find along the beaches, on marshes, and on the docks offer a trove of visual inspiration.
Amelia Island loves its “show birds.” The egrets and herons are favorites. They seem to pose – white, sometimes blue, elegant, with yellow bills and long legs. They are dazzling as they take wing, and even as they go about their business of looking for the next meal in a peaceful marsh or at the water’s edge. Even the gangly, ugly wood storks, awkwardly balancing on branches in clusters, have a certain charm. A seasonal favorite are the strawberry pink Roseate Spoonbills, often confused with flamingos by novice bird watchers, who are fooled by their pinkish color.
Birds can also be entertaining. Consider the anhingas and their look-alike cousins, the cormorants, who dive under the water, pop up like a jack-in-the-box, and find a place to spread their wings, looking like brownish angels on the nearby shore. Pelicans, both white (seasonally) and brown, can be found near the water either on the river side of the island or flying in formation along the ocean edge. A walk on the beach can bring the treat of spotting a variety of gulls, terns, sand pipers, and in season, skimmers. Other birds like owls, woodpeckers, eagles, and ospreys are harder to spot, but share the island with us and their other feathered friends.
Wild Amelia, an island non-profit organization, is a wonderful resource for those interested in both birds and the area’s unique habitat. The group offers a variety of programs and community outreach events. Photography classes for all skills are offered throughout the year. The organization sponsors an annual photography contest and presents a 3-day nature festival, held every May each year. The festival includes numerous nature tours led by area naturalists and park rangers, as well as popular nature photography workshops.
The Nassau County Bird Club conducts field trips eight or nine times a year, and typically once a month from September through April. The field trips go to locations good for bird species in each of the seasons of spring, summer, fall, and winter. The club visits state parks, state forests, and other spots in Nassau and Duval counties. Field trips are announced by email to its members, and in the News-Leader and Fernandina Observer. The club has been in existence for almost 20 years, and over 180 species have been observed on these trips. Bill George is the leader of the club, and he can be contacted at email@example.com.
Where to spot Amelia Island’s Variety of Birds
A variety of feeders and seed can be found at big box stores or Ace Hardware. Cardinals, titmice, Carolina wrens, Carolina capped chickadees, and finches are predictable visitors. Less frequent and seasonal are colorful painted buntings and bluebirds.
Egans Creek Greenway Preserve
Egans Creek Greenway Preserve is a protected area of over 300 acres that runs north-to-south along Egans Creek. Its grass-covered network of trails are shared by walkers and cyclists. Offering a variety of habitat, the Greenway is the home of wading birds like the American Wood Stork, herons, egrets, and the Roseate Spoonbill. In addition, alligators, snakes, and bobcats may be sighted from a distance. There are several entrances, including one behind the Atlantic Recreation Center on Atlantic Avenue, and one behind The Residence Inn on Sadler.
Fort Clinch State Park (entrance fee required)
A favorite spot for birders, the park offers various habitats, including beaches, dunes, maritime hammock, salt marshes, and a rock jetty. Birding trail maps can be picked up at Fort Clinch as well as other Florida parks, nature centers, and tourist information centers. The birding trail maps describe which species to look for at each site along the trail, as well as information about local bird watching programs and a calendar of events.
Amelia Island State Park (entrance fee required)
Located on the south end of Amelia Island the park protects over 200 acres of unspoiled wilderness. Beautiful beaches, salt marshes and coastal maritime forests provide visitors a glimpse of the original Florida. It is the nesting grounds for a variety of shore birds and Bald Eagles are often sighted.
Continuing south on Heckscher Drive and across the George Grady bridge and Nassau Sound you will find Spoonbill Pond on the left side of the road. A boardwalk on one side allows birdwatchers to view large wading birds such as the endangered American Wood Stork, herons, egrets, and Roseate Spoonbills.
Continuing south the Great Florida Birding Trail continues with sites on Big Talbot and Little Talbot Islands. These undeveloped barrier islands are popular for fishing, birdwatching and their beaches. Continuing south on Heckscher Drive you reach Huguenot Memorial Park (Jacksonville), another excellent spot noted for its bird populations.
Cumberland Island National Seashore
The next barrier island north of Amelia Island is Cumberland. Short day trips can offer additional opportunities to observes the areas birds. Cumberland Island National Seashore can be reached by a ferry leaving from St. Mary’s, Georgia. The island is home to pristine maritime forests and wide marshes. Georgia’s largest and southernmost barrier island offers over 50 miles of trails and roads, as well as 18 miles of undeveloped beach.
Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge
Headwaters of the Suwannee and St. Marys rivers, the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge covers nearly a half million acres. The park offers a wilderness made up of islands, lakes, jungle, forest and prairie. Boat tours follow original Indian waterways. There are wilderness walkways and many opportunities to see a variety of birds.