Sanibel Island’s warm subtropical climate is perfect for birds to thrive in all year long. Here are five fascinating birds that you may see roosting in the mangroves or relaxing on the sand flats this fall. We would also like to give a special thanks to Lillian Stokes for allowing us to share her beautiful photography! All images are copyright Lillian Stokes.
The first time you see a spoonbill flying overhead with its pastel plumage and trailing legs, it is almost instinctual to think it's a flamingo, but it's easy to tell the difference upon closer inspection. Roseate Spoonbills inhabit Sanibel year-round, but the cooler fall months are a great time to spot them foraging in mucky water around low tide. The spoonbill is a very tactile feeder, and it wiggles its spoon-shaped bill through the water until it senses an unlucky crustacean to snack on. If you would like to see a spoonbill, a visit to Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge is your best bet.
American White Pelican
The arrival of the American White Pelican in the fall months is a highly anticipated event for birders on Sanibel. These birds are much larger than the familiar Brown Pelicans that we see year-round, and have a striking black and white plumage. Journeying thousands of miles from the Rocky Mountains and Northern Canada, these birds almost always arrive on Sanibel in October, right on schedule. You don't have to look too hard for these giant birds – you can usually find them feeding along Wildlife Drive in Ding Darling or soaring over the island showing off their 9-foot wingspan!
Even though the Black Skimmer can be spotted on Sanibel's Gulf Drive beaches throughout the year, the fall is a great time to see both adult and juvenile skimmers. It is hard to describe a skimmer without comparing them to a Muppet character - you can often see these birds waddling along the beach on legs that are just long enough to support their top-heavy frames. If you look at their bright orange bill closely, you will notice that the top half is slightly shorter than the bottom. Strangely enough, the skimmer uses this uneven bill as it flies just inches above the ocean, dipping its lower jaw into the water in hopes of catching a fish. When the bird feels a fishy texture on its lower bill, it quickly snaps its mouth shut and flies off with the unsuspecting fish. You can find this aptly named bird on almost any Gulf beach from Sanibel to Captiva, as well as at Bunche Beach Preserve in Ft. Myers.
This lesser-known pigeon is always a treat for bird watchers on Sanibel because it doesn’t visit our neck of the woods very often and is actually a threatened species in the state of Florida. Standing just taller than a Mourning Dove, this pigeon is mostly black and as its name suggests, has a white crown. It is often heard before it's seen, calling out a soft hoo-hoo-HOOOO. The White-crowned Pigeon is a rare occurrence on Sanibel but may be seen October through April, if you're lucky – so keep your eyes and ears open this season! White-crowned Pigeons have been previously spotted in Ding Darling on Wildlife Drive and along the Shell Mound Trail nestled in between mangrove branches.
About the size of a backyard chicken and with striking plumes, this shorebird is sure to stand out from the crowd. You may find oystercatchers standing extremely still waiting for the tide to recede or you may see them actively foraging in shallow water in search of oysters, clams, and mussels. These birds put their spear-like bill to good use by quickly stabbing open bivalves to sever the adductor muscle that is used to keep their shell closed. With no way for the clam to snap its shell shut and no other escape route, the soft-bodied animal is quickly devoured by the oystercatcher. If you happen to be on a boat, you can see oystercatchers feeding on Little Sanibel (the sandbar East of the causeway), or they can be seen from land at Bunche Beach Preserve in Ft. Myers.