We’re always looking for new birding sites, especially if they’re close to home and packed with birds and other wildlife, and also easy on the eyes, i.e. beautiful habitats. The Bird Rookery Swamp is such a place in Southwest Florida. It is a relatively new and accessible public park opened in 2011.
The rookery is not far from the famous Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and is part of the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed (CREW), a 60,000 acre parcel surrounding the Audubon sanctuary. It has been set aside to help control and maintain the natural water flow and to curb over-development in the region. It seems a little less structured and crowded than the former, and you won’t find any guides or gift shops here, but both sites are superb birding destinations. The wide paths are former logging roads interrupted with an elevated 1800 foot boardwalk over the wet swamp.
Our morning started early with a great breakfast at Panera Bread, allowing the sun to rise and warm up the day. This was an unusually cool day for Florida with the temperature barely breaking into the 50’s. My two companions were eager and engaging birders and photographers, quick to compare techniques, equipment, and results, offering welcomed advice. The quips and puns were nonstop, all making for an enjoyable day in the field.
If you come to the Bird Rookery Swamp, drive slowly along the narrow public road leading to the small parking lot. We invariably see an American Kestrel, Cattle Egret, and Red-shouldered Hawk here. When the road becomes gravel there is a canal on the right, usually teeming with fishing and wading birds. That’s where I caught that Little Blue Heron above enjoying his early breakfast.
Also don’t overlook the parking lot. You will usually see Night Herons perching there warily observing the half-submerged gators below. The juvenile Black and Yellow-crowned were difficult for me to tell apart until Andy pointed out that the Black-crowned has a yellow mandible, while the Yellow-crowned is black. Go figure, but it works. I finally figured out why most of the cars in the lot had balloons and garbage bags tied to their roofs. They are there to stave off roosting and defecating vultures. It saves a $15 trip to the car wash.
The initial shell covered road, just out of the parking lot, usually offers the best birding. Song birds including White-eyed Vireos and Common Yellowthroats fill the shrubs on both sides with the waders and waterbirds in the canal to the left. There are wide, uninterrupted skies here, letting you try your luck at “shooting” the flyovers of herons, storks, hawks, and Swallow-tailed Kites, the latter usually arriving in these parts after Valentine’s Day.
I’ve been fortunate to see 55 different bird species at this location in about 10 visits. During this last trip we saw a family of otters crossing the access road, while Florida Panthers, Bobcats, and White-tailed Deer have been reported by others.
The boardwalk winds through the cypress, pines, and oaks. In this area look for the Barred Owl, warblers, and woodpeckers, including Pileated, Red-bellied, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. We were lucky enough to catch a Pileated looking out from his treehouse.
Many people come to the Bird Rookery Swamp to see the gators, not the birds. These prehistoric beasts do have some appeal, but my primary observation of them occurs when I warily give Alligator mississippiens a wide berth whenever they lie across the trail. As the saying goes, “I don’t have to out run the gator, I just need to out run my companions, Andy and Mel.”
Southwest Florida is blessed with an abundance of great birding sites and we are now adding the Bird Rookery Swamp to the growing list. The fact that you can bird under sunny February skies, even with temperatures in the 50’s is wonderful, especially when the alternative offers snowy weather in the teens or below at our northern residences. Alas, we’ll be heading back there all too soon.