Camp Helen is listed as one of the premier locations on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail. Although the park is only 185 acres, Camp Helen features a rich diversity of habitats including beach dunes, maritime hammock, sand pines, scrub oaks, mesic flat woods, tidal and depression marshes. This diversity has attracted more than 190 avian species to the park. It is truly a birding hotspot.
Over two miles of looping trails are easily accessed from the visitor’s center where one can pick up a trail map, a birding checklist, and binoculars. The trails provide easy access to each of the Park’s habitats which provide unique seasonal viewing opportunities for birds. A southbound trail runs along the southwestern shore of Lake Powell and crosses a small footbridge over the entrance to a marsh. The trail continues along the marsh which may hold Pied-billed Grebes, Rails, Swamp sparrows, Marsh sparrows, Night herons, or other marsh-loving species. The trail itself is lined with pines and native shrubs that provide habitat for Mockingbirds, Eastern Phoebes, and sparrows. To the west, just beyond the marsh large pine trees may be seen which often host Great Blue Herons. Hawks, Eagles, and Ospreys sometimes occupy the tallest pines.
Shortly past the marsh, the trail splits either to continue south past a protected nesting areas along Phillip’s Inlet to access the beach or continues westward to pass through elevated dunes before entering a coastal maritime hammock. Most birders continue onto the beach. The salt and freshwater mixing in Phillip’s inlet offers productive feeding for a seasonal variety of terns year-round. Least Terns and Snowy Plovers nest in the dunes and on the beach from late April through August. Black-bellied plovers and Piping Plovers in winter. Wintering ducks including Red-Breasted Mergansers and Buffleheads share the inlet with Loons, Herons, and Egrets which are also found in the Lake and in the Gulf. The beaches are often crowded with gulls and a variety of sandpipers, known collectively as “peeps”. Year-round avian residents of the beach and inlet are popular with most visitors.
Less common species including Avocets, Roseate Spoonbills, Reddish Egrets, and Black Skimmers may be seen along the inlet and adjacent beach. Major storms sometime bring in Magnificent Frigate Birds. In the winter, a sharp-eyed observer might even spot a Northern Gannett on the Gulf horizon.
Returning from the beach, birders may opt to take the westward trail ascending through dunes that peaking at about 30 feet rewarding them with a stunning overview of the gulf and the old pier before entering the Oak Canopy trail. Depending on the season, a wide variety of upland birds may be seen on this trail. This trail runs past a large depression marsh, known as the Duck Pond, before returning to the central area of the park.
There is also northward route that runs beneath the bridge to access a boardwalk running along the shore of Lake Powell. The boardwalk provides beautiful views of Lake Powell and many of the aquatic species identified on the beach, and many upland birds, especially during the Spring and Fall migration. Bald eagles are sometimes seen soaring overhead or sitting in tall Pines on the North shore of the Lake.
Volunteers conduct monthly species counts at Camp Helen. Results are posted in a logbook at the Visitors Center and are reported to e-Bird, an international citizen-science online database. At last count, more than 190 species had been identified at Camp Helen. If you would like to join in this effort email [email protected].
Year-round beach and inlet residents at Camp Helen include:
- Brown Pelicans
- Great Blue Heron
- Great Egret
- Laughing Gulls
- Royal Terns
- Snowy Plover