Birdwatchers flock to unofficial '17th Avenue Bird Sanctuary' | John Appleyard

John Appleyard Pensacola HistoryPublished 8:00 AM EDT Aug 2, 2020Each day, thousands of motorists enter or lea

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Each day, thousands of motorists enter or leave the city via the Pensacola Bay Bridge. As they pass through, most vehicles are moving at moderate speed, thus it would be possible for passengers to view one of the community's settings present because of a man-made addition. One might label a unique view that is the "17th Avenue Bird Sanctuary," for portions of the traffic do exit from below the 17th Avenue CSX train pass-over. In any case, cars will pass by a short, park-like setting on the west side. Just beyond this grassy slip of land is a series of rock settings on which sea grasses have developed. On some occasion, viewers would see this site untended and bare and perhaps wonder: "Why did someone put that there?"

The answers are varied and perhaps totally unexpected. However, during many driving times, those watching would find that there, just a few feet from the water's edge, is one of the region's most enjoyable bird sanctuaries. The rocks themselves were, we understand, placed as part of a filtration plan with the grass growth, present impurities are taken from the water, and the shallow bay becomes a haven for some smaller fish, and the birds, well, their numbers will vary from hour to hour, month to month, and the types will differ, too.

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The narrow strip of land is nicely maintained and there are even benches where lookers (or sometimes diners) may enjoy a delightful view that on clear days, takes eyes all the way to the Naval Air Station. Sometimes, a fisherman or two may make their way along the shoreline itself, some dropping line a few feet out, others carrying a cast net hoping to bring home a catch of mullet. However, the fishermen do not appear to disturb the birds.

On and off the rocks, the birds come and go, some using this setting as a perch from which to rise and fish for themselves (a sight that those sitting on the benches always enjoy!)

Seagulls are there in numbers, brown pelicans come and go during two-thirds of the year, and the scene is brightened by many of other types, some small, some of modest size. Even unskilled "watchers" note that all of this is without violence. Those who are true birdwatchers will note the regular visits of the blue herons, who land and rise gracefully throughout the year. The common loon, the horned grebe, the northern gannet and the double-crested cormorant are present in the cooler months, generally October through April, while the great egret might best be seen in April or September.

The times of day for best viewing also will vary with temperature. A number of couples who find such watching a pastime have developed a "scheme." They may arrive between 7 and 8 in the morning, perhaps bringing their breakfast sandwiches and coffee, prepared to just sit and enjoy. Occasionally, there will be several benches occupied late in the afternoon as the sun begins its retreat. Bird numbers do sometimes reflect those times.

The birds seem to have a sense of forecasting, too, or at least one friend who is a regular birdwatcher and who witnessed this unique event says it was true. He and his wife were present for breakfast on the morning preceding the onset of Hurricane Ivan. Later, he would muse, "The birds sensed what was coming. That day, they were, well, just acting differently."

Parking adjacent to the "rocks" is limited, but slowing just a bit as the car passes the site may provide a worthy viewing.

John Appleyard is a Pensacola historian and writes a weekly historical column in the Pensacola News Journal. His 15-minute films about Pensacola are viewable, without charge, from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday in The Cottage, 213 E. Zaragoza St.