Footprints in the Sand - Eco Trail
Please leave only your footprints

The Old Man & The Sea Birds

In search of rare species on Pensacola Beach's Footprints
in the Sand Eco Trail
by Mark O'Brien

Binoculars? Check.
Four books on birds? Check.
A cane and a walker, just in case? Check.
"I'm 92," says Alan Sheppard. "You can't be robust forever."

Sciatic nerve problems or not, Alan is determined to show me some of the
many birds of Santa Rosa Island. He's been an avid birder for 80 years, ever
since he got a merit badge in birding on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout.

"When I was a kid, a bird-watcher was a weird creature. Now, bird-watching has caught on," says Alan, a retired lawyer who has lived just about his whole life in Pensacola, Florida, an area rich with native and migratory species year-round.

Eyes Wide Open

Alan's my former neighbor in Pensacola. I often saw him heading out in search of birds. He has 28 years on me, and I am impressed with how he keeps motoring along, more vital and energetic than many people much younger. I'm eager to see the mojo in his bird-watching.

Soon enough, he and I are driving toward Santa Rosa Island, a spectacular stretch of white-sand beaches kept pristine as part of Gulf Islands National Seashore. We cruise through Villa Sabine, a residential area that is a mishmash of architectural styles. Vacant waterfront lots along Pensacola Beach draw many birds, and Alan tells me to look for sandbars that rise at low tide and draw brown pelicans, black skimmers and other sea birds.

He points out two birds that sit atop a telephone wire. One is a mourning dove, the other a mocking bird. "Mocking birds hang around with everybody," says Alan, who soon spots a Eurasian collared dove and points out its differences from the mourning dove. "It's a little more slender in the neck, and it's tail feathers are squared off, not pointed."

How the heck can he see that through 92-year-old eyes, even with binoculars? I've driven through this Pensacola Beach subdivision 1,000 times, but this is the first time I start to notice the bird life—something he has seen for decades.

To the Fort

The road to Fort Pickens rolls past acres of sea oats and glistening white sand, the Gulf of Mexico to the south, Santa Rosa Sound to the north. At Battery Langdon, many of the birds are year-round Pensacola residents—blue jays, brown thrashers, bellied woodpeckers. Here’s an osprey nest high overhead, there’s an easily accessible trail wandering through vegetation rich with birds.

Alan has traveled as far as New Jersey and South America to see birds, but he’s spotted rare species right here in Pensacola as they migrate elsewhere or get blown off-course. He especially liked seeing a groove-billed ani, and once he spotted a seldom-seen Franklin gull among a flock of ubiquitous laughing gulls, much to the surprise of other birders.

“I got cross-examined on that one. They wanted to be sure,” he says with a laugh. “I passed the test.” We resume cruising through Pensacola Beach. A picnic area is devoid of people so we turn in. Chirping birds join the surf and breeze to create the natural soundtrack that surrounds us. Alan points toward areas near the fort where he has seen unusual birds—a scissor-tailed flycatcher, a peregrine falcon and a rufous hummingbird, just to name a few.

There are many birds he still wants to see, but he’s not disappointed when he spots only the usual suspects. “It's like fishing,” Alan says. “If you caught fish every time you went, it wouldn’t be fun.”

I'm hooked. Bird watching on Pensacola Beach lets me cruise around beautiful beaches, rich in vegetation and wildlife, and anchored by an amazing historic fort on one end. And it can keep me curious and energetic year-round.
New hobby: Check.

If you do not have a seasoned birder to show you around Santa Rosa Island, let the Footprints in the Sand Eco Trail signs guide the way. Learn about the unique wildlife and vegetation in the area, as well as the importance of dune restoration and barrier islands and other fascinating facts about the natural surroundings.