5 best birding spots within 50 miles of Bradenton

Birders, grab your binoculars. Manatee County Audubon Society secretary Jim Stephenson gave us his top five birding spots, spanning over four counties and listed here in order from closest to farthest from Bradenton.

Some tips: typically, fall and winter from November to April are the best times to see the greatest range of birds, since Florida is a part of what’s called the “Atlantic Flyway,” a route for migratory birds from Greenland to South America. Also, the early bird really does get the worm; the closer to sunrise visitors get out into nature, the better.

View 5 best bird spots in 50 Miles of Bradenton in a full screen map

Emerson Point Preserve

As one of 514 official birding places on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail list, Emerson Point Preserve at the tip of Snead Island is a great place for birdwatching. The land is filled with boardwalk trails and mangrove forests, and even a few pull-off areas from the main road where visitors can park and walk onto quiet beaches within sight of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Pelicans, herons and ospreys dominate the landscape during the summer, but later in the year Emerson is home to a variety of migratory birds.

  • County: Manatee
  • Miles from Bradenton: 4.3
  • Hours: Sunrise to sunset, year-round
  • Unique quality: bird variety
  • Address: 5801 17th St. W., Palmetto 34221
  • Cost: free

Felts Audubon Preserve

Tucked between farm lands and residential communities, the 27-acre former farm land, formerly owned by Otis and Anita Felts, is now a birding paradise. With four niches — hardwood hammock, wetlands, upland pines and prairie — the preserve is a hotspot for wading birds and songbirds. Felts is one of Stephenson’s picks not because the Manatee County Audubon Society owns and runs the preserve, but because it’s so local. Keep an eye out for colorful indigo and painted buntings from November to April.

  • County: Manatee
  • Miles from Bradenton: 7
  • Hours: Sunrise to sunset, year-round
  • Unique quality: indigo and painted buntings in fall and winter
  • Address: 4600 24th Ave. E., Palmetto 34221
  • Cost: free, donations welcome

Celery Fields

Located next to the Big Cat Habitat in Sarasota, Celery Fields is separated into three different cells of water that travel from Fruitville Road south to Phillippi Creek. The Fields, which used to mainly grow celery in the late 1920s until 1995, is a part of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail list and is also Sarasota County’s primary storm water collection zone. Stephenson said Celery Fields is great for seeing wading birds like ibises, herons and black-necked stilts. While visitors can also see bald eagles and red-winged blackbirds, the Sarasota Audubon Society notes that breeding birds call the Fields home, like limpkins, eastern meadowlarks and king rails.

  • County: Sarasota
  • Miles from Bradenton: 17
  • Hours: 6 a.m.-12 a.m., year-round
  • Unique quality: water birds
  • Address: 6799 Palmer Blvd., Sarasota 34240
  • Cost: free

Fort De Soto State Park

The popular beach destination is also one of only eight recommended birding trail sights out of the 514 total listed on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail list. Home of the historical Hernando De Soto fort on Mullet Key, the park actually spans across five keys: Madelaine, St. Jean, St. Christopher, Bonne Fortune and Mullet. Pinellas County and the St. Petersburg Audubon Society compiled their own lists of the best places to see birds at Fort De Soto. Shorebirds and ospreys are plentiful year-round, but fall and spring are the best times to see migratory birds, like hooded warblers, Baltimore orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks.

  • County: Pinellas
  • Miles from Bradenton: 28
  • Hours: 7 a.m-dusk, year-round
  • Unique quality: migrating birds
  • Address: 3500 Pinellas Bayway S., Tierra Verde 33715
  • Cost: $5 fee for parking

Lettuce Lake Park

Although Lettuce Lake Park is the farthest from Bradenton on this list, it shouldn’t be overlooked. The lake isn’t a lake at all; rather, it’s a finger-like body of water that extends from the Hillsborough River. The park has cypress swamp and hardwood hammock niches, which makes it home to many water-bound creatures, especially alligators. Tampa Audubon Society hosts bird watching tours a couple of times per month. Take a paddle out in the water to see herons, comorants, red-shouldered hawks and bald eagles.

  • County: Hillsborough
  • Hours: Summer: 8 a.m.-8 p.m.; spring and fall: 8 a.m.-7 p.m.; winter: 8 a.m.-6 p.m.
  • Miles from Bradenton: 49
  • Size: 240 acres
  • Unique quality: yellow-crowned and black-crowned night herons
  • Address: 6920 E. Fletcher Ave., Tampa 33637
  • Cost: $2 per car

Have a special birding or wildlife viewing place in mind? Feel free to share with us, because in Florida, no one really don’t have to go far to see what kind of nature is out there.

Hannah Morse: 941-745-7055, @mannahhorse