Ecotourism in South Walton

Spotlight on Bird Watching

Visitors may flock to the Emerald Coast for our sugar-sand beaches and unspoiled landscapes, but our unique natural resources extend far beyond coastlines and waterways. The Choctawhatchee Audubon Society calls our region the most biologically rich area in the U.S. in terms of the number of living creatures. From sea turtles to bottlenose dolphin to great blue herons, the species who pass through our area are plentiful and diverse.

Our local communities embrace ecotourism, which can be defined as sustainable tourism. It includes authentic experiences that are distinctive to the local region, and it differs from mass-market tourism in that it exists because of the place. Simply put, it cannot be outsourced.

Consider bird-watching, for example. The Emerald Coast is a hotspot for this pastime because of the variation in habitats and its position within migration routes. Our location near both saltwater and freshwater make this an ideal habitat for a variety of birds.

Notably, Florida is home to the third largest number of bird species behind Texas and California–states with much more land mass. The region is home to coastal seabirds, shore birds, wetland birds, birds-of-prey, migratory birds and introduced species. The warm temperatures allow native birds to stay year-round and provide nesting locations for migratory birds.

Coastal seabirds nest on the shoreline and are often seen diving just offshore for saltwater fish or gathered in groups on piers. Those common to the panhandle include the double-breasted cormorant, aningha and eastern brown pelican.

Shore birds also live on the shoreline but they do not hunt in the ocean. Native species include the red knot, the American oystercatcher and the dunline.

Wetland birds require freshwater wetland habitats like marshes, swamps, lakes and rivers to survive. Species like the great blue heron, snowy egret and white ibis build nests of grass and mud at the water’s edge as do other waterfowl, like ducks.

Perhaps most well-known, the Panhandle’s birds-of-prey include the osprey, bald eagle, swallow-tailed kite and red-shouldered hawk. They live in the treetops of forest regions near freshwater sources because they feed on amphibians and fish. Florida boasts one of the highest populations of bald eagles in the U.S.

Introduced species include those that aren’t native to the area but that were introduced here, typically by humans who released them into the wild. They can be dangerous to the area because they have no natural predators, allowing them to overpopulate. As a result, they often negatively impact native birds. Our muscovy duck is an example.

Each year, our area hosts a variety of ecotourism events that connect locals and visitors with our varied natural resources. Programs like the Choctawhatchee Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count tallies the welfare and presence of birds in the area. Volunteers assist with the count that collects photos, recordings, and as many details as possible about the local bird population.

The Emerald Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau also hosts Nighttime Educational Beach Walks that educate people about sea turtle migration, egg-laying, and the species’ importance to local ecosystems. The presentation teaches people to recognize tracks, identify threats to the population, and watch for them during visits to the beach.

Other ecotourism offerings include Grayton Beach State Park, Topsail Hill State Preserve, Eastern Lake Bike Trail, and the Cassine Garden Nature Trail.

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National Geographic Names South Walton on Best Trips 2019

The Emerald Coast is making global waves again. National Geographic recently named South Walton to its list of Best Trips for 2019, confirming what communities served by The Premier Property Group have long known: our region offers much more than just beautiful beaches. Citing the vast and varied marine life and the local efforts to protect natural resources, the National Geographic team chose South Walton as one of only three U.S. destinations to make the list.

The magazine is not alone in its applause. In 2018, Forbes called South Walton Florida’s Best-Kept Secret.

Comprised of 26 miles of beach, 16 communities, and four state parks, South Walton welcomes more than 4.1 million visitors annually, of which almost 40% are return guests. A 2018 report noted that each visitor to the area delivers an economic impact of about $1,126.

Built within the last 30 years, the 16 communities of South Walton are as unique and varied as the residents and visitors who grace their boundaries. Some are known for their architecture, some for their laid-back atmosphere, and others for their eclectic offerings. Artists, ecotourists, foodies, adventurers, athletes and shoppers alike find something to love about the area, whether they’re drawn to cutting-edge developments, extraordinary experiences or simple beach lifestyle.

Last month, we showcased the Underwater Museum of Art (UMA), recently named to Time’s Greatest Places of 2018. This uncommon offering combines the beauty of sculpture with the utility of an artificial reef to create a scuba destination unlike any other. The UMA launched in 2017 to provide a necessary habitat for a wide variety of marine life. Because the museum plans to add new sculptures annually, visitors can return every year to explore the new additions and the growing numbers of species that call the reef home.

Ecotourism opportunities are endless, extending from rare dune lakes that are only found in a few places around the world to the miles of trails that wind through South Walton. Countless varieties of marine life and animal species reside among the sugar-white sand and emerald waters, including the Great Blue Heron, the bottlenose dolphin, and endangered sea turtles.

Those who love South Walton for its charm enjoy unique shopping, spectacular restaurants, locally-caught seafood and inviting resorts. Outdoor amphitheaters play host to numerous shows and performances, and the farmers’ markets allow shoppers to support the local economy while enjoying the best of our local natural resources.

The neighborhoods of South Walton, each with its own personality and history, draw visitors of all ages and stages, primarily from the Southeast and the Midwest. Roughly 94 percent of visitors spend time at the beach, and more than three-fourths come to relax with family.

Visitors to the area create more than 22,000 jobs and generate a total economic impact of $4.4 billion annually, and those numbers continue to grow. For those already invested in the area, property values remain sound and profitable, as both Walton and Okaloosa counties repeatedly demonstrate growth in real estate closings. Simply put, it’s a great time to own property on the Emerald Coast.

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