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RSW Living Magazine

Birds of a Colorful Feather: Southwest Florida’s Birds Are the Best

Jan 27, 2022 01:04PM ● By ANN MARIE O’PHELAN

Roseate spoonbills, reddish egrets, great blue  herons, green herons, and tricolored herons—all wading birds—are just a few of the spectacular, colorful birds that can be seen in Southwest Florida this time of year. Another prized wading bird that migrates here for the winter is the American avocet, which has a beautiful curved bill and striking orange plumage during the breeding season (summer/fall in northern states). Sometimes the avocets arrive in December and January and still have their beautiful orange neck plumage, but by February, it will fade to their typical black and white feathers. By April or so, they will start migrating north again.  

The harder-to-spot bright yellow and black mangrove cuckoos can be found year-round in the mangroves and lowland habitats. In contrast, the large aquatic American white pelican can be easily seen soaring overhead, as its wingspan is one of the largest of any North American bird. These majestic white birds with yellow bills spend their winter months in warmer climates,  and their summer months in the mountains and plains of the northern regions of the U.S. and Canada.   

This colorful collection of bird beauties is often spotted in the region’s many wildlife preserves, nature parks, and sanctuaries. The American white pelicans, for example, are often seen in the open waters at J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel and flying overhead on Fort Myers Beach. The year-round roseate spoonbills, with their colorful pink plumage, are also likely to be seen at the “Ding” Darling refuge and the Little Estero Island Critical Wildlife Area in Fort Myers Beach.  

Painted buntings, with their vivid blue, green, yellow, and red feathers, migrate to the area in the winter and can often be seen at the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples, where there is plenty of dense brush. The yellow-colored prothonotary warblers, small songbirds that migrate here in the spring, are more likely to be spotted at Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve in Fort Myers, as they prefer wooded, swampy areas. 

While many areas of Southwest Florida are a birdwatcher’s dream, the “Ding” Darling refuge is the biggest and best. Known worldwide as a birdwatching mecca, the refuge is home to more than 245 species of birds, both migratory and residential. At “Ding” Darling, even the parking lots are sometimes the scene of migration celebrations. “Visitors can see smaller birds, brightly colored birds like scarlet tanagers—a red and black songbird—and painted buntings migrate throughout the refuge and use habitat fragmentation like our parking lots,” explains Toni Westland, supervisory refuge ranger.  

The four-mile Wildlife Drive through the refuge, open Saturday through Thursday, can be driven, hiked, or biked to view birds and other creatures. Three hiking and biking trails can be accessed from the drive, including the Indigo Trail where nesting birds can be seen in season at the Wildlife Education Boardwalk, which has a two-story observation tower at the end.  

The best birding months are December through March; however, some birds such as herons, egrets, osprey, pelicans, anhingas, spoonbills, and cormorants can be enjoyed year-round. Birding is best when the tide is low and the birds are feeding.  

The “Ding” Darling Visitor and Education Center offers a chance to learn more. Free birding tours, as well as other guided tours, are available. A 90-minute tram tour is recommended for Wildlife Drive and is offered through Tarpon Bay Explorers on Sanibel. 


Ann Marie O’Phelan is a Southwest Florida resident and regular contributor to TOTI Media. 



  • Your favorite field guide  
  • Binoculars 
  • Hat 
  • Comfortable shoes 
  • Sunscreen 
  • Portable folding chair 
  • Water and snacks 


Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary 

375 Sanctuary Road W, Naples 



18201 John Morris Road, Fort Myers 

11135 Gulf Shore Drive, Naples 



38th Street W, Lehigh Acres 

J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge 

1 Wildlife Drive, Sanibel 

7330 Gladiolus Drive, Fort Myers 

Little Estero Island Critical Wildlife Area 

Directly south of Wyndham Garden Fort Myers Beach 

5505 Rose Garden Road, Cape Coral 


Six Mile Cypress 

7791 Penzance Blvd., Fort Myers 



Tarpon Bay Explorers  

900 Tarpon Bay Road, Sanibel