A few days back Matt Reid mentioned birding hotspots.  I have spent several
days collecting facts and would like to nominate St. Marks NWR as no worse
than third in the US and would recommend it as THE best spot in the US for
a beginner.  I have birded St. Marks nearly 250 times during the last three
and a half years.  Why do I keep going back?  Having birded the Rio Grande
Valley, places like Presque Isle on the Great Lakes, southern California
around the Salton Sea, and the Maine coast in the winter, I would have to
say that St. Marks has the most bang for the buck.

1. Habitat - you can go from flatland pines, through flooded hardwoods and
Cypress swamps, past grassy fields and freshwater impoundments, all the way
to saltwater marshes and the gulf coast in seven miles.  I have never seen
another place with such habitat diversity in such a short distance.
2. Ease of use - excellent paved road, with readily accessible
trails.  Miles of levees through all kinds of habitat.
3. Number of bird species - the official list only contains 275 species
with another 31 listed as having been seen just a few times on the
refuge.  The unofficial list is at least 320 species.  This based on what I
have found (264 spp.) plus what Noel Wamer has on his list.  I'm sure Jack
Dozier and others may be able to add to this total.  Keep in mind that my
list only includes the Wakulla unit (the seven miles of road mentioned
above).  How does this compare to other places?  Ding Darling lists 238
spp. on their official list, Merritt Island lists 330.
4. Number of birds per time spent - It is possible to see 100+ spp. in a
few hours without driving more than a few miles.  I have done 100+ 27 times
on the refuge, at least once in every month of the year except August
(mainly because I usually spend a couple of weeks in August in the Rio
Grande Valley) so it is possible to do a century day almost any day of the
year just on the refuge.  It can also be very efficient, last Friday
evening I only had 45 minutes of daylight to bird and got 57 spp., better
than one species/minute.  Overall, my average is 69 spp. per trip.

I'm sure others will disagree with my assessment, but overall, I would have
to rank SMNWR as one of the best spots in the US for birding.

Have fun,

Tom Curtis
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