Birdwatcher's Paradise

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is a gold mine for ornithologists and a nature treat for the casual observer

By: David Jones

NAPLES, Fla. A small crowd had gathered almost two miles down the boardwalk at Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Some scrambled to locate high-powered binoculars favored by experienced birdwatchers, while other stood at the ready with tripod mounted cameras armed with telephoto lenses.

While there were no sightings of the rare Florida panther, the object of their attention was indeed unusual, and a possible sign of things to come. Burrowed inside the cavity of an ancient bald cypress tree branch, was a yellowish green female summer tanager, a sight so rare around these parts that it’s not listed in local field guides.

“For that particular species in our nearly 50 year history this is the first one we’ve recorded being here, at this time of year,” said Ed Carlson, executive director of the sanctuary. “There are aberrations in nature. That bird didn’t read the book.”

This songbird is often found in abundance in the pine forests of North Carolina during the summer months and spends the autumn migrating to the tropics, as far south as the Brazilian rainforest. There were no other tanagers around, so how this female strayed from the flock remained a mystery not to be solved this day.

However, for even the most seasoned bird watchers, days like these are what make this area special. On a cool day, during what had been a bitterly cold week, this was the best of the other part of Florida. The decibel level is a little lower, the crowds a little lighter and the water lies still in the sea. Old growth trees, wildlife and one of the most abundant sites for bird watching in the entire world.

Almost 200 species of birds reside here in the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, developed in 1954 by the National Audubon Society to protect local wildlife and the world’s largest patch of Bald Cypress forest from loggers. The trees, estimated at more than 500 years old, provide shelter for some of the nation’s most important wildlife, including white- tailed deer, nine-banded armadillo, black bear, pigmy rattlesnakes and American alligators.

However, bird lovers flock here with regularity, because of the rich abundance of species.

Corkscrew is also home to the nation’s largest colony of nesting wood storks, an endangered species whose population is down almost 90 percent over the last 50 years due to development and the resulting drainage of the wetlands. Carlson said conditions for the wood stork were ideal last year, and he estimates the sanctuary held 1,200 nesting pairs of wood storks.

The great blue heron and the great egret are common sights here, both tall, elegant-looking birds that remind one of a swan, with long swinging necks and yellow bills. The birds live upwards of 20 years and survives on a plentiful supply of fish, while taking advantage of small insects, small birds or even reptiles.

The red-bellied woodpecker and the pileated woodpecker, which has a red crown and white stripes about the head and neck, can be seen and heard all over the sanctuary.

For those who are not experts on various bird species, don’t fret. The sanctuary’s Blair Audubon Center offers several exhibits to teach the most novice of nature lovers about the environment.