Visiting birders show the most interest in the following species:
- Mississippi Kite
- Bald Eagle
- Sandhill Crane
- Burrowing Owl
- Red-cockaded Woodpecker
- Florida Scrub-Jay
- Brown-headed Nuthatch
- Wood Thrush
- Bachman’s Sparrow
This attractive little insect-eating hawk graces our skies between mid-April and mid-August. It is easiest to see immediately after its arrival and in the 2-4 weeks before its departure.
It is actually fairly common in residential Gainesville, especially the western margin (more or less along SW 75th Street on the south side of SR-26, and NW 43rd Street and NW 34th Street on the north). Good places to watch the sky are:
- Kanapaha Park, at SW 75th Street and SW 41st Terrace
- West Gate Publix, at SW 34th Street and University Avenue
- YMCA, on NE 23rd Avenue just west of NE 15th Street
- Unitarian Universalist Church, on NW 34th Street just north of NW 39th Avenue
Again, late July and the first half of August are the best times to watch.
Other places where kites may be seen include Paynes Prairie’s La Chua Trail, Poe Springs County Park, and O’Leno State Park.
Locally common and easy to see from Oct-Nov to Mar-Apr around the larger lakes (only a few linger through the summer months). Here are three reliable sites:
- Newnans Lake is probably the best single spot. From Gainesville, go east on SR-26. Three miles east of town, the road curves left; at this point you should continue straight on CR-329B (Lakeshore Drive). This road dead-ends at Newnans Lake, at the crew team parking lot. Further south on CR-329B is Palm Point Park. Even further south, turn left onto SR-20 (Hawthorne Road) and after half a mile or so turn left into Powers Park and walk to the fishing pier. All three spots give good vantages for scanning the lake over which the eagles often hunt (look for them perching on the lakeside trees as well).
- Lake Wauberg, at the Paynes Prairie State Preserve main entrance (US-441 just north of Micanopy), usually has a few that can be seen at rather close range, especially first thing in the morning.
- Another good site is the east shore of Lake Lochloosa. From Hawthorne (ten miles east of Gainesville) take US-301 south 6.7 miles to SE 162nd Avenue. Turn right, cross the railroad tracks into Lochloosa County Park, and scan the lake from the fishing pier.
About 25 pairs of cranes nest in Alachua County and are here year-round. They are not easy to see, but after the young have fledged you may find them by driving back roads in the southeastern part of the county (Micanopy, Cross Creek, Island Grove, Evinston) and scanning the fields.
In November, a few thousand cranes from the upper Midwest arrive to spend the winter. Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists have observed that they often feed in marshes (Paynes Prairie, remote margins of Orange Lake and Lake Lochloosa) until the first freeze, when they shift their foraging to pastures
At this time they can often be seen at very close range at the University of Florida’s Animal Science fields at the corner of Williston Road (SR-331) and SW 23rd Street. You may also see them along Paynes Prairie’s La Chua Trail and along the same back roads mentioned above. During the latter half of the afternoon, they fly from their foraging areas to roost in the marsh at Paynes Prairie. Depending on their line of flight, you may be able to watch them pass by the dozens by standing on the observation platform on US-441 three miles south of Williston Road (SR-331).
The Alachua County populations have died out or are on private land, but there’s a colony a few miles to the south in eastern Gilchrist County. From Gainesville go west on Millhopper Road (CR-232) across I-75, turn right onto CR-241 at the dead-end, and almost immediately turn left again onto CR-232. Continue on 232 into Gilchrist County. You’ll pass CR-337 northbound on your right. About a mile further, turn left onto CR-337 southbound. Go three miles, then turn right onto a dirt road running between two rows of trees, SE 40th Street (not marked). In a little over a mile the road will curve right and become SE 57th Court. Follow the curve, then turn left onto SE 39th Street. You will come to SE 53rd Court. Burrowing Owls can be found along 53rd to both the right and left.
This bird is easiest to see from April through August. Afterwards it leaves, or becomes nocturnal. At any rate, it is less evident at that season.
This bird has vanished from Alachua County over the past fifty years. There may still be one or two in the pinewoods around Waldo, but the last actual sighting was in May 1997.
So to see them you must go to Goethe State Forest or one of the National Forests. It is best to do this during the breeding season, April to June, when the birds are tied to their nest-trees (which are very visibly ringed with light-blue paint). During the rest of the year, finding them is a matter of luck. Please avoid disturbing this endangered species – keep a reasonable distance from nest-trees.
- Goethe State Forest, south of Bronson, has a healthy population and is the nearest of the three locations shown here. From Gainesville go west on SR-24 about twenty miles to Bronson’s single traffic light. Turn left onto ALT-27, go a fraction of a mile, then turn right onto CR-337. Continue south several miles to CR-326, turn right, and drive 4.5 miles. There will be a cluster of nest-trees on your left. If you come to Cow Creek Road, you’ve gone a mite too far.
- There are several colonies in the Ocala National Forest. Here are a few of them: go south on US-301, cross the county line, and continue past the small town of Citra. A few miles further south, turn left (east) onto CR-316. Stay on this road (there’s a little jog to the right at CR-200A) to its intersection with CR-315 at Ft. McCoy. From that point continue east 8.7 miles on CR-316 to Forest Road 88 (landmark: the 88 Store on right). Turn left, go 4.2 miles to FR-75, and then turn right, go another half-mile, and look for the blue rings. From the intersection of CR-316 and FR-88 you can also turn right and proceed several miles to the junction with CR-314. The area around this intersection, Salt Springs Island, is home to half the forest’s active nest clusters. You can continue south on 88 to FR-10, turn left, and continue a mile to another cluster.
- There are several colonies in the Osceola National Forest. Take I-75 north to Lake City. Exit at US-90 and go east out of town. When you see the Correctional Center on your right, turn left onto Forest Road 215, cross the railroad tracks, and pull off the road at the gate on your left. Look for trees painted with blue or white rings. You can continue along FR-215 to FR-278, which will lead you through several miles of Red-cockaded territory. When FR-278 meets Still Road, turn left to US-90, and at US-90 turn right to return to Lake City.
This species had vanished from its last Alachua County nesting sites, south of Cross Creek and west of Archer, by the early 1980s. There are two places within an hour’s drive where they can still be seen.
- A small colony hangs on in the Cedar Key Scrub State Preserve, about 60 miles west of Gainesville. Take SR-24 west through Archer, Bronson, and Otter Creek. Just before you arrive at Cedar Key, turn right (north) onto CR-347 and continue to the intersection with CR-326. There are probably less than two dozen birds remaining in this area, and because of their scarcity your chances of seeing them are only about fifty percent, or less. Watch the wires, snags, shoulders, and tops of shrubs and small trees along CR-347 from half a mile south of the intersection to a quarter-mile north.
- There are many more jays in the Ocala National Forest. Follow the directions given for Red-cockaded Woodpecker above. One mile east of the Oklawaha River bridge on CR-316, the sand pines on either side of the road will give way to a lower growth of round-topped oaks, with snags evident. This is scrub habitat. Watch the telephone wires and the tops of the oaks and snags for “sentinel” birds. Oak scrub is interspersed with sand pine all the way east to FR-88 and for some distance north on FR-88 as well. Sometimes the jays are easy to find – indeed, you may be mobbed by them – and sometimes they are relatively secretive. You can also go south from CR-316 on FR-88, cross CR-314, and continue south on 88 to SR-40: you should run across more jays, especially south of FR-10.
These are fairly common in most extensive tracts of pine. The flatwoods at Morningside Nature Center is the traditional place to look – the picnic area, or the trails south of the office, or just around the parking lot. They’re equally likely in the flatwoods of the White Trail at Longleaf Flatwoods Reserve on CR-325 two miles south of SR-20 or the Red Loop of the Hatchet Creek Tract on SR-26 two miles east of the junction with CR-222, but these latter two sites require a longer walk than Morningside. They will usually respond well to a taped screech owl call.
A few of these birds nest in the northwestern quadrant of the county. The easiest place to find them is San Felasco Hammock State Preserve. That said, all you can do once you get there is walk the trails through the deep deciduous woods (May is probably the best time) and listen for their songs.
Wood Thrushes may also be seen during fall migration, from the end of September to the middle of October, at San Felasco and, to a lesser extent, Paynes Prairie’s Bolen Bluff Trail and Lakeshore Drive at Newnans Lake.
Not too hard to find between April and August at Longleaf Flatwoods Reserve near the parking corral (CR-325 two miles south of SR-20).They seem to have returned to Morningside Nature Center too, for the first time since 1995; listen for them along the Powerline Trail. Familiarize yourself with their song before you try to track them down.