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  • Writer's pictureBill McNee

Birding Hotspots in St. Johns County – Ft. Matanzas Inlet!

Updated: Sep 7, 2022

St. Johns County is a first-rate destination for birding! Situated along a critical

portion of the Atlantic Flyway, according to eBird (from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology), 339 resident and migrating species of birds have been sighted within its borders, across a range of coastal, upland, and freshwater habitat.

To the benefit of the birds, the county is bounded by water on two sides – to the east lies the Atlantic Ocean and the barrier island of Anastasia; to the west lies the north-flowing St. Johns River, the longest in the State of Florida. Interestingly, one of the things that makes St Johns County so special for birding is the wide range of habitat that supports the broad diversity of birdlife we have – stretching from the beach / dunes, maritime forest, mangroves, and salt marsh, through a variety of upland ecosystems (including upper pineland flats, scrub and mixed hardwood),

all the way to fresh-water lakefront, marsh, swamp, river coastal and river habitats.

Given its’ location on the Atlantic Flyway and diversity of habitat, St. Johns County boasts an amazing array of shorebirds, songbirds, raptors, and waterfowl home.

While there are dozens of excellent birding hotspots locally, this is the first in a series of articles that drill down on some of my favorites! We start off by highlighting Ft. Matanzas Inlet – a fantastic destination for both the beginner and advanced birder alike.

Ft. Matanzas Inlet

Located at the southern end of St. Johns County, roughly 14 miles from St. Augustine, lies the beautiful Ft. Matanzas Peninsula. It joins the Matanzas River with the Atlantic Ocean and is edged by white sandy barrier island beaches. It is a popular place for birders, fishermen and beach walkers.

The peninsula is part of Fort Matanzas National Monument, located just south of the Park’s main entrance. We recommend parking in the west parking lot (southbound side of A1A), which is just north of the bridge and leads to the boardwalk on the river side, which is the best side for birding.

The sandbars allow birds to congregate in large numbers with a variety of birds resting together. As is typical, the early morning is the best time to see the birds. On the ocean side, you will see many of the same shorebirds and often you can watch the osprey and pelicans fishing. If you look carefully, you may see dolphins, ghost crabs, gopher tortoises, manatee, and summer-nesting sea turtles as well.

Typical birds you might see at the Ft. Matanzas Inlet include American Oystercatcher, Bald Eagle, Brown Pelican, Caspian Tern, Double-crested Cormorant, Forster’s Tern, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Laughing Gull, Osprey, Royal Tern, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Snowy Egret, Tricolored Heron, Willet, and Wood Stork. Special winter visitors include Black Skimmers, Bonaparte Gull, Dunlin, Piping Plover, Red Knot, Sandwich Tern and Semipalmated Plover. Twenty-eight acres of the Ft. Matanzas Inlet on the river side is designated by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) as a “critical wildlife area” (CWA) – and protected from April 1 to August 15. Least Terns and Wilson’s Plover “nest from late April through July, although we are increasingly seeing the Wilson’s Plover stay all year,” shared Peggy Cook, who has been conducting bird surveys for the FWC for many years, and regularly leads bird walks there for St. Johns Audubon (CLICK HERE to read “An Interview with Peggy Cook – Nesting Shorebird Monitor”).

Walking the full loop is ~ 1.3 miles and can take anywhere from 45-120 minutes depending on how quickly you walk, and how many birds you might see! However, a short visit to the boardwalk on the river side can be rewarding and fun by itself.

eBird Listing – Ft. Matanzas Peninsula:

Additional Birding Hotspots to Explore on Your Ft. Matanzas Visit

Nearby are several excellent places to bird that can round out your morning or afternoon birding experience at Ft. Matanzas Inlet, including:

Southeast Intercoastal Waterway Park: 114-acre park off A1A just prior to the entrance to the Ft. Matanzas National Monument. It has a boardwalk along the edge of the salt marsh, as well as a ½ mile trail through coastal shrub. Quick birding stop. eBird Listing:

Ft. Matanzas National Monument: Visitor’s Center run by the National Park Service with several birding trails and a free 5-minute ferry across the Matanzas River to visit the fort. eBird Listing:

Moses Creek Conservation Area: Preserves one of the few remaining undeveloped tidal creeks (Moses Creek, a tributary to the Matanzas River) in northern Florida. eBird Listing:

Matanzas State Forest: The 4,700-acre forest, protects the last remaining undisturbed salt marsh within the Guana-Tolomato-Matanzas (GTM) National Estuarine Research Reserve. Entrance on US-1, just south of 206. eBird Listing:

Butler Park Boat Landing, Palmetto Rd. docks, Weff Rd. docks: Located just north of Crescent Beach are three great stops for shorebirds, especially in winter at high tide – when the shorebirds often settle en masse on the boardwalks. This includes White Pelican, American Oystercatcher, Whimbrel, Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Spotted-Sandpiper. eBird Listing (Butler Park Boat Ramp):

Washington Oaks Gardens SP (Flagler County): Located 8-10 miles south of Matanzas Inlet, the park has beautiful rose gardens, ancient live oaks, and access to both shoreline beachfront and the intercoastal. Occasionally dolphins are sighted in the Matanzas River! Fees required. eBird Listing:

Other Favorite Birding Hotspots in St. Johns County

In the coming months, be on the lookout for other featured articles that focus on some of my other favorite birding destinations in St. Johns County, including Masters Tract Stormwater Treatment Facility, Guana Tolomato Matanzas (GTM) NERR / Guana River WMA, Dr. Robert Hayling Freedom Park, and Nocatee Landing.

Be aware, however, that there are many more fantastic destinations well worth exploring, including Anastasia State Park, Faver Dykes State Park, Fish Island, Fort Mose State Park, and the fantastic birding opportunities along Shore Drive in South St. Augustine. Information for many of these hotspots can be found on the St. Johns Audubon website, as well as top County-wide hotspots identified on eBird.

For newer birders (and veterans alike), a visit to the rookeries at St. Augustine Alligator Farm (fees involved) can be a lot of fun (especially during Spring nesting season), as is the highly accessible Bird Island Park located behind the Ponte Vedra Branch Library. For the wheelchair bound, a trip to Fort Mose State Park (boardwalk) or Vaill Point State Park (paved loop trails) are equally worthwhile.

About the Author: Bill McNee has been a lifelong outdoor enthusiast, a passion he loves to share with others. Roughly twenty years ago, Bill took up birding and nature photography in a more serious way, as he realized they were a terrific gateway to connect with nature every day. This year he’ll help manage the St. Augustine Circle for Audubon’s annual Christmas Bird Count. He is a former board member of the St. Johns County Audubon Society, for whom he continues to lead bird walks from time-to-time.

If you are a Facebook user, check out First Coast Birding and Beyond, a birding and photography group Bill founded in 2020. While there are quite a few excellent local birding photographers who generously share their work, it’s a great place to learn about and enjoy the birds.

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