Pensacola Birdwatching Guide: Experience this Prime Birding Locale

The Pensacola Bay area is an incredible place to birdwatch, whether you’re a casual nature enthusiast or a fiercely obsessive hardcore birder. The Florida Panhandle roughly straddles two of North America’s major bird-migration corridors—the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways—which means a tremendous number of songbirds, shorebirds, waterfowl, and other avian travelers funnel through twice a year. Many species breed here, too, from the plush sugar-sand beaches to the deep pinewoods. From northern cardinals to blue jays, lots of northern birds retreat to this balmy coast for the winter, and furthermore a slew of birds call it home all year-round. More than 300 bird species have been recorded around Pensacola Bay: tiny hummingbirds and kinglets to hulking bald eagles, great blue herons, and pelicans. 

This all adds up to amazing birding opportunities in every season. Pensacola Bay encompasses a dense concentration of birdwatching hotspots along the Great Florida Birding & Wildlife Trail, which in fact has its northern starting point here. We’re going to kick off this birdy blog post with short profiles of some of the region’s defining species, then run through a few of the especially productive birding sites ripe for exploration.

A Sampler Pack of the Pensacola Area’s Birdlife

From Gulf of Mexico seabirds to neotropical warblers coming ashore for a well-deserved breather after their sea crossing, Pensacola Bay’s avifaunal lineup is amazingly diverse. To sketch out that diversity, let’s introduce you to just a few of the feathery types that spend all or part of their year here.

Brown Pelican

Take, for starters, the brown pelican, arguably the most iconic resident bird of the Florida coastline. Sporting a wingspan exceeding seven feet and (of course) quite the pouch, this pelican may look a little ungainly when perched, but it’s a superb aerialist. The sight of a squadron flapping low and majestically over the waves at sunset is one of the postcard-perfect sights the Emerald Coast has to offer, and the brown pelican’s spectacular dives after fish never fail to impress. (Especially in spring, you might also see the brown pelican’s bigger-yet relative, the American white pelican, in the Pensacola Bay area: not as acrobatic in flight, but—as one of the very biggest birds on the continent—a glorious creature to behold.)

Another bird to look for on the immediate seashore is the handsome northern gannet, a seabird mostly seen in winter and spring. Its steep plunges while fishing definitely rival the brown pelican’s maneuvers. So do the fish-targeting swoops of the osprey, the so-called “fish hawk” that resembles an especially lanky eagle; the Florida Panhandle’s one of the few places in the U.S. supporting a year-round population of these elegant raptors.

On the same beaches from which you might admire the flyby of a pelican, gannet, or osprey, you may spot the super-cute—and threatened—snowy plover, one of several plover species that nest on this coast. It’s a speedy little bundle of mostly white feathers with some black streaks on the face and neck during the breeding season. The snowy plover scrapes out well-hidden nests right in the sand: clutches threatened by human disturbance (abide by any and all beach closures protecting these and other nesting shorebirds!) and, at the general level, by coastal development.

Among the many far-traveling songbirds that migrate through the Pensacola Bay area is the magnolia warbler, a small, flitting stunner with yellow, black-streaked breast and grayish head and back. 

Magnolia Warbler

The pinewoods of Pensacola’s inland reaches are certainly a songbird haven, and also an excellent place to look for native woodpeckers. Those include the red-cockaded woodpecker, the only one in the area that actually hammers out its nesting site in living (rather than dead) pines. Red-cockaded woodpeckers have been greatly reduced in number and range with the loss of their preferred pineland habitat.

Another pinewood bird that you’ll also see in swamps is the red-shouldered hawk, often spotted perched and sharp-eyed at the very top of tall trees. You may be clued into its presence by its high screech, which carries long-distance.

Prime Birdwatching Spots in Pensacola’s Vicinity

The northwestern “gateway” to the Great Florida Birding & Wildlife Trail is Big Lagoon State Park, an excellent starting point for sampling local birdlife. No fewer than 23 kinds of wood-warblers have been observed here during their spring and fall migrations, while a host of shorebirds (dunlin, black-bellied plover, and more) and waterfowl (such as red-breasted mergansers and buffleheads) winter here. The park’s pine stands are good places to look for such woodpeckers as northern flickers and yellow-bellied sapsuckers.

Big Lagoon State Park

One of the natural treasures of this coast is Gulf Islands National Seashore, a reliably excellent place to crack out those binoculars (and crack open that bird field guide). Fort Pickens, for instance, is a great place to seek a glimpse of migrating warblers and look for such breeders as snowy plovers and least terns. You may luck out with a sighting of a genuine rarity such as the scissor-tailed or olive-sided flycatchers. The National Seashore’s Perdido Key across the entrance of Pensacola Bay from Fort Pickens is another shorebird and seabird nesting hotspot as well as a place to watch for those fleet northern gannets, plus marsh birds such as spotted sandpipers and clapper rails.

The courtship ritual of the least tern is an amazing thing to watch! The male does elaborate aerial acrobatics while using his distinctive call & searching for a fish he can swoop down on, capture & then offer to the waiting female. – @anchorphotog

Right along Pensacola’s Bayfront Parkway, meanwhile, the salt marsh and coastal waters of Project Greenshores draw pelicans, royal terns, yellow-crowned night herons, black-necked stilts (which look like they’re wearing tuxedos), and more. In 2011, a king eider—a spectacular “sea duck” normally found in the Arctic—showed up here, embodying the birding truth that you just never know what might wing its way through any given place. 

Other outstanding Pensacola-area stops along the Great Florida Birding & Wildlife Trail include Tarkiln Bayou Preserve State Park—where white-eyed vireos nest in titi tangles, waders stalk the water’s edge, and brown-headed nuthatches and yellow-headed chats contribute cheerily to the flatwood soundtrack—and Blackwater River State Park, a good place to look for red-shouldered hawks, woodpeckers, and yellow-billed cuckoos.

Birdwatch to Your Heart’s Content In & Around Pensacola

Consider the above just a teaser of what birdwatching can be in the Pensacola area: There are so many more amazing species we haven’t mentioned, and so many prime birding locales we didn’t have room to cover. All things considered, this is an incredible place to indulge your passion for the feathered tribe—or get hooked for the very first time on the lifelong joy of birdwatching!