Greater Yellowlegs Reflection, Fort DeSoto, Florida
Bird Photography,  Travel

Capturing the Beauty of Birds at Fort De Soto: A Bird Photography Guide

Fort De Soto is a bird photography gem located on the Gulf of Mexico, just south of St. Petersburg, Florida. This park offers a variety of habitats, such as beaches, mangroves, marshes and hardwood hammocks, that are home to a wide range of birds, both migratory and residents.

The park is renowned for its birdwatching and bird photography opportunities, and it’s a great place to see and photograph some of the most sought-after species such as the Reddish Egret, the Roseate Spoonbill, the American Oystercatcher, and more. Fort De Soto is one of the top bird photography locations in the United States.

About Fort DeSoto

Fort De Soto is a popular tourist destination located in Pinellas County, Florida, USA. It is situated on Mullet Key, which is surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay. This historic fort was built in the late 19th century to protect the strategic Tampa Bay area from potential invaders.

Fort De Soto has a rich history. It was named after Spanish explorer, Hernando De Soto, who was one of the first Europeans to explore Florida in the 16th century.  The park still houses the historic fort and battery.

Fort De Soto is a haven for bird enthusiasts, offering a diverse range of bird species throughout the year. With its unique location, the park serves as a critical stopover for many migratory birds traveling between North and South America. Visitors can spot various types of birds such as pelicans, sandpipers, plovers, ospreys, and bald eagles. The park also provides a nesting habitat for several species of terns and skimmers.

Fort De Soto is home to several birding hotspots, including East Beach, North Beach, and the Arrowhead Picnic Area, which attract bird watchers from all over the world. With its abundant birdlife, Fort DeSoto is truly a birding paradise that offers a unique experience for nature lovers.

Sunrise at the Sunshine Skyway Bridge from East Beach
Sunrise at the Sunshine Skyway Bridge from East Beach

Getting To Fort De Soto

We stayed in the Madeira Beach area of St. Petersburg, and it was an easy 30 minute drive down the coast to get to Fort De Soto Park for sunrise.  There are 2 tolls to pay on the way to the park.  There is a Pinellas Bayway toll that is $1.00 and there is another toll of $0.75 before you get to the park.  The tolls can be paid via SunPass or Toll-By-Plate.  Most rental car companies have a service where the tolls will automatically be charged to the credit card that you used to rent the vehicle.

Fort De Soto Entrance Fees

There is a $5 entrance fee for Fort De Soto.  You can sign up and pay using the Flowbird app or you can pay by credit card at multiple kiosks located throughout the park.  The entrance fee is tied to your vehicle’s license plate number, so you will not need to place a ticket on your car’s dash.

Fort DeSoto Photography Map
Fort DeSoto Photography Map

Where to Photograph at Fort De Soto

Fort De Soto offers numerous photo opportunities throughout the park. Below are a few favorite locations along with the best time of day to photograph them.

East Beach

The East Beach is a great location to photograph the sunrise with the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in the composition.  Try to time your sunrise photos with boats passing by the bridge or with a pelican flyby.

The Photographer's Ephemeris view from Fort De Soto
The Photographer’s Ephemeris view from Fort De Soto

You can use The Photographer’s Emeritus or PhotoPills app to find the right location and time to align the sunrise with the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

This is also a good location to photograph shore and wading birds in the late afternoon.  A Reddish Egret is frequently seen on East Beach displaying its erratic fishing behaviors meant to disorient its prey.  This behavior is known as “canopy feeding” because the egret will often spread its wings out like a canopy over the water while fishing.

Osprey Nest Building, North Beach
Osprey Nest Building, North Beach

North Beach

North Beach at Fort De Soto is a long stretch of sandy beach that spans approximately 2.5 Miles (4 Kilometers) along The Gulf Of Mexico. North Beach is one of the best locations at Fort De Soto to photograph birds in the morning light.

We walked North Beach for a couple of miles.  Near the north end of the parking lot there are several pools back from the beach that were full of shore and wading birds. 

At these pools, we saw and photographed: Roseate Spoonbills, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, White Ibis, Snowy Egrets, Greater Yellowlegs, Black-bellied Plover, Sanderlings, American Avocet, and more.

There were also plenty of Brown Pelican for birds in flight photo opportunities at North Beach.  A pair of Ospreys were also nesting in the grassy area near the North Beach Parking lot.  There are several Osprey nests and a large number of Ospreys in general at Fort De Soto.

At the far north end of North Beach, we also photographed a large flock of White Pelicans.  On the way back to the car, at the picnic area near the parking lot, we were treated with a photo opportunity of a Loggerhead Shrike (aka: Butcher Bird).

The Fountain and Rangers House

At the east end of the parking area for the Edgemont Ferry Pier, there is a trail that leads past the Ranger’s House.  On the trail we encountered several song birds including Northern Cardinals, Ground Dove’s, and palm warblers.

About 150 yards past the ranger’s house on the left hand side is a water fountain with benches where the birds come to drink during the heat of the day.  The fountain is a bit hidden by bushes and trees; look for benches on the left side of the path. The benches near the fountain are fairly close, so you may need to switch to a zoom lens or a lens with a shorter focal length.

There was also another Osprey’s nest near the fountain.

The eBird website is a great tool to see what species have recently been spotted at Fort De Soto.

Brown Pelican in Flight, North Beach
Brown Pelican in Flight, North Beach

Photography Gear

I photograph using OM System / Olympus Micro Four Thirds photography gear.  Micro Four Thirds gear has 2X crop factor when compared to full frame gear.  For example: a 100-400mm lens would have an effective 35mm focal length of 200-800mm.  Micro Four Thirds lenses are also a lot smaller and lighter than full frame gear making it easier to walk miles along the beach at Fort De Soto.

I predominately used the OM System OM-1 camera with the Olympus 300mm f/4 lens + 1.4x teleconverter while photographing at Fort De Soto. This combination gives a 35mm equivalent focal length of 840mm.  Since my OM System / Olympus kit weighs less than 5 pounds, I did not use or bring a tripod with me.

If you are using heavier full frame / crop sensor gear, you will want to bring along a tripod.  For more engaging photographs of shore birds, you will want to get low to get eye level shots of your subject.  A tripod that is able to set up low to the ground is a good choice for shore bird photography.

I also carried a backpack with:

  • Olympus 12-100mm f/4 lens for landscapes, sunrise, & beach sand patterns
  • Olympus 60mm macro for sand, shell, beach macro photographs
  • Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III (converted to infrared) with an Olympus 14-42mm EZ lens for any interesting infrared landscape shots.
  • Extra Battery
  • Extra SD cards
  • Bottle of water

For bird photographers, Fort De Soto provides an abundance of opportunities to capture stunning images of birds in their natural habitat. If you are visiting the west coast of Florida, make sure to reserve a day to visit Fort De Soto.

Written by Martin Belan

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3 Comments

  • RT

    Growing up in St Pete spent many hours birdwatching at the park. A premiere spot during spring migration. Always on my to do list when I return to visit family/friends.

  • Linda Krugman

    Thanks for the wonderful post. I am thinking of planning a trip to FL for 2024. What time of year would you suggest for bird photography?

    • Martin Belan

      Hi Linda,

      I like to visit Florida in the winter / spring. The summer is hot / humid. I find a good variety of birds at that time and the weather is great. It’s also good if you can time it with the spring bird migration in April / early May.

      Martin

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