A Beginner’s Guide to Bird Watching in Palm Beach County

By Captain Bob Branham, birding photographer, wildlife enthusiast and Palm Beach County resident

To get started birding in South Florida is easy—simply go outside and look around. Even in the city, there may be plenty of opportunities to observe birds. Do a simple Google search for birding spots near you and you’re likely to find a park or natural area nearby. Ponds and canals are great habitats for wading birds, osprey, ducks in winter and maybe a hawk if you’re lucky. Some county parks such as the Green Cay Nature Center and Wetlands and Wakodahatchee Wetlands have engineered boardwalks and are managed to attract birds and wildlife—these spots are exceptional places to try. Beaches will have variety of gulls, terns, pelicans, plovers, sand pipers and loads of other maritime visitors . Never pass up a chance to drive through the agricultural areas west of town. You may find many species of raptors including eagles, caracara, and owls. As your appetite grows, you may find yourself on an airboat or bass boat trip through the heart of the everglades—a must have experience for sure.

Generally, any park with some open space, a pond or canal, and plenty of native plants will have interesting bird life. Between January and February, Palm Beach County’s bird population is enhanced with migratory birds from up north. Many warbler species fly through the area to end up farther south but some stick around and spend the winter here. Migratory raptors include red-tailed hawks, northern harriers, white-tailed kites and American kestrels. Some nature centers put out feeders to help attract songbirds.  One of the stars of our winter visitors is the painted bunting—a truly spectacular sight. My favorite parks in PBC are Wakodahatchee Wetlands and Green Cay Wetlands. A visit to these areas is never disappointing and they are very close together, so you can do both in one outing.

Top Locations

for great birding opportunities:

While you’re out looking for interesting places you will quickly be able to recognize quality habitat. It’s not always what you would expect. When you find a group of birds in a field try to identify what has brought them there, then try to find those conditions elsewhere. Some birds have learned to live with people. They will be the easiest to approach and photograph. Wading birds are very dependent on water levels and water levels continually rise and fall. Winter brings our dry season and falling water levels are what concentrate these birds. It is not uncommon to see 10 species together feeding in these drying ponds. If you go birding on the coast or at the beach, remember it will be best the last half of the falling tide—low tide is best.

I like to take pictures and I find the best light for photography is morning and evening but if the weather is nice I’ll stay out all day. Changing weather seems to get the birds moving so the days before a front passes and a day or two after can be great. I like a bit of wind rather than a calm day and I like to catch the sunrise when I can. Clouds and colors can be pretty special when things are right.  Birds are usually most active in the morning—ospreys will be fishing, caracara will be hunting for road kill and the song birds will be singing.

At some point along your birding adventure, you may want to take your own pictures. Generally, the better equipment you have the easier it will be to get a great shot. A fast, long lens will help and wearing earth tones or camo in the field will help you get closer without drawing too much attention. I find my car makes a suitable blind but I also have a small pop up blind that I use from time to time. Try to stake out an area of activity and be patient. Birds that live in parks near people are usually much more approachable than those in the wild are. I seldom use a tripod—preferring to hand hold the camera most of the time—but a good sturdy tripod is worth having especially in a blind. Have your camera settings dialed in and always be ready for a shot—it sometimes happens very quickly so keep alert and watchful. Take lots of photos and delete the bad ones. Only show off you best shots.

Birding Tips

Tips to make your birding experience more enjoyable:

  • Borrow or purchase a pair of binoculars.
  • Get a field guide to birds. The library is a great resource and has many books about birds in North America.
  • Wear comfortable shoes and sun protection like a hat and sunscreen.
  • Wear comfortable shoes and sun protection like a hat and sunscreen.

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