Birding at GTM Research Reserve

Yesterday I went to Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (GTM Research Reserve), which is one of my favorite birding spots. Since most people who visit here are nature-lovers, who simply want to relax in peace, it is usually quiet enough to practice birding by ear.

The entry to the reserve is along A1A, in Ponte Vedra Beach. It is fronted by a large, easily-spotted sign. Smaller signs along A1A indicate the preserve’s beach-access lots.

Driving toward the preserve, visitors can turn left towards the Visitors Center (open Tuesday through Saturday) or they can continue straight ahead toward the preserve’s paved parking lot.

Visitors entering the preserve are asked to pay a small fee. Those planning to visit frequently can also purchase an annual parking pass.

At the mouth of the parking lot are two small yellow buildings. The first is a place offering kayak rentals. The second building contains restrooms.

Sanderlings, GTM Reserve, Ponte Vedra Beach, FL

Sea birds and wading birds are often spotted on either side of the parking lot, which straddles the Guana River. Signs also warn of alligators, so take care when standing waterside during warm weather.

At the end of the paved lot is a short, unpaved road. This ends in a smaller, unpaved parking lot closer to the trailhead.

Just beyond the unpaved lot is a building, which contains additional restrooms. Outside of the women’s restroom is a gopher-tortoise burrow, which has been fenced off with yellow tape. On sunny days, the resident tortoise may be seen basking in the sun.

Resident gopher tortoise at trailhead. GTM Reserve, Ponte Vedra Beach, FL

The trails are well-marked, and there are usually benches here and there along the way. Gray trails are dead-end extensions, which sometimes offer a bench to sit on. However, the benches often overlook scenic marshland and can be uncomfortably close to the water’s edge when the tide rises or following heavy rainfall.

GTM Research Reserve, Ponte Vedra Beach, FL

One waterside bench has an upper or lower level on which to perch. On this day, I perched on the higher seat. I could see something brown moving along the far shore. I thought it might be an otter, but instead it was a raccoon swimming to a clump of marsh grass some distance away.

Along the way, you may notice small, triangular-shaped digs. These are usually made by armadillos.

Look for armadillos in the early morning and evening.

Heavily disturbed earth indicates feral hogs. I saw roots and a marshside wallow, but I did not see the hogs that made them. However, I met a couple who had seen several hogs along the Purple Trail that same day. They said that, one morning, they saw a bobcat on the Red Trail. As I walked the Orange Trail yesterday afternoon, I noticed deer prints.

Watch for Cirsium horridulum (Horrible Thistle). Its leaves form sharp spikes. It is a common bog plant in Florida, and is important to bees and birds.
Cirsium horridulum blossom. It produces thousands of spiny seeds.

There are multiple trails to choose from, and in some areas it is easy to cross from one to another, so one can opt for a shorter or longer hike. Listen for pockets of songbirds and be ready with your binoculars. My bird count for the day was 33 species, half of which were smaller birds.

Yellow Trail, GTM Reserve, Ponte Vedra Beach, FL
Yellow Trail, GTM Reserve, Ponte Vedra Beach, FL
Picnic tables are available at the end of the Yellow Trail, but trash cans are not. To keep the park pristine, everyone packs-out their garbage and discards it at home.
Orange Trail, GTM Reserve, Ponte Vedra Beach, FL. The boardwalk is level. The slant is simply lens distortion.

References and Credits

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Published by cafsamsel

Carol Fullerton-Samsel is a nearly-native Floridian who lives with her husband of 25 years and three rescue animals. She has a passion for day-hiking and nature, and also enjoys writing. Be sure to visit the TenPaths YouTube channel, which is still in its infancy.

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