Florida’s Natural Wonders Take Center Stage at National Wildlife Refuges
By Janet K. Keeler
Florida’s national wildlife refuges are for the birds. Or rather it’s because of the birds that the nation’s wildlife refuge system was born and thrives in Florida.
It’s not just humans who travel south for the winter. The Sunshine State is part of the Atlantic Flyway of migratory birds moving north to south for warmth.
Bird migration and sanctuary was one reason in 1903 that President Theodore Roosevelt, with the encouragement of the Audubon Society, moved to protect Pelican Island in the Indian River Lagoon. That designation kicked off the nation’s wildlife refuge system and today Florida’s 29 refuges rank just behind California and North Dakota for total number.
Good thing Roosevelt saw it Audubon’s way. Today, Florida is considered one of the best places in the country for birding, no doubt because the protection of habitat was deemed important so many years ago.
While there are many birds and other wildlife that call Pelican Island Wildlife Refuge home, it’s the brown pelican that captured Roosevelt’s attention. (Look for the migratory pelicans from fall to spring.) The refuge can be seen up close on free Wednesday tours from November through March.
Wildlife refuges are lands and waters set aside to protect the habitats of the animals there. In Florida, some refuges are in such precarious states that they have been closed to the public to ensure that both flora and fauna can rebound and flourish. If and when that happens, human visitors may be welcomed again.
Among those refuges closed are Pine Island National Wildlife Refuge; Lake Wales Ridge National Wildlife Refuge; Passage Key National Wildlife Refuge; Caloosahatchee National Wildlife Refuge; Island Bay National Wildlife Refuge; Matlacha Pass National Wildlife Refuge; Pinellas National Refuge and St. Johns National Wildlife Refuge.
Closed refuges aren’t bad news. The emphasis is on preserving wildlife habitat even if that means those beautiful areas are off limits to us. Still, there are plenty more refuges worthy of a special trek for Florida residents and visitors. Here is a roundup:
Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, named after University of Florida scientist and conservationist Archie Carr, has the largest nesting population of loggerhead turtles in the United States. The refuge is just south of Melbourne Beach and the best time for viewing the nesting turtles is June and July. Mark August and September on the calendar if you want to see the hatchlings emerge from the eggs. Guided night tours and supervised turtle dig programs are available.
If you’re an alligator hunter, you can get a special permit to hunt in certain areas of Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge west of Boynton Beach. Hunting helps manage the population of gators, which have bounced back mightily after dwindling numbers in the 1970s. Today’s gator count in Florida exceeds 1 million. There is also permitted waterfowl hunting. An annual Everglades Day every February includes guided talks, children’s activities, canoe trips and food.
A recent addition to the system is the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area, smack dab in the middle of the southern part of the state near Avon Park. Special permits are needed for nearly all activities at Everglades Headwaters in part to protect the Kissimmee River Valley and the endangered Florida grasshopper sparrow. The refuge started with just 10 acres of donated land and plans to add to the sanctuary will have it eventually encompass 150,000 acres.
The Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge are two sprawling refuges on the southwest coast of the state. The endangered Florida panther is given wide berth on the refuge bearing its name. If you have more than passing interest in the panther and want to get involved, there are RV hookups for traveling volunteers who want to work 24 to 32 hours a week. There are also internship opportunities for students interested in conservation and Florida wildlife.
At the Ten Thousand Islands refuge, permitted hunting and fishing are big draws. With more than 230 acres of mangrove forest, the refuge is nirvana for paddlers who want to get close to one of the world’s largest mangrove systems. Paddlers plus hikers on a 2.2-mile trail can check off dozens of birds as they see them, including great horn owls, roseate spoonbills and mangrove cuckoos. Bring binoculars for some fabulous bird watching.
Wondering what southeast Florida looked like long before condos lined its shores? Visit Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge on the Indian River north of Jupiter to get a glimpse of real Florida. The refuge is the longest stretch of undeveloped beach in that part of the state and home to more than 40 species of nesting turtles, all of which are threatened. Winter brings many more birds to the refuge as part of their southern migration.
Lee County is home to the wildly popular J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island. The Darling refuge is named after the Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper editorial cartoonist, and a visitor and education center tells his tale and how a Midwest journalist came to have his name on a Florida attraction. Bicycle and hiking trails take visitors through the lush landscape, and motorists can experience the refuge by driving the one-way road. Speed limit is 15 mph on the 4.25-mile long road so plan accordingly because there’s no turning back. There are places to pull over for photos and sightseeing. A guided tram tour is fun for first-timers (or even repeat) visitors. Tickets are $13 for adults.
The Egmont Key National Wildlife Refuge, which sits at the northern mouth of Tampa Bay in Hillsborough County, is one of the few Florida refuges that boast a classic lighthouse, built in 1858. (There is a light station at Cedar Keys refuge and at lighthouse at St. Marks in Northwest Florida.) Several gun batteries and other buildings are part of Egmont’s history as the Fort Dade military installation. Today Egmont, which is reachable only by boat, is a safe haven for all sorts of birds, among them 100 pairs of nesting brown pelicans in the summer. The threatened loggerhead turtle joins box turtles and gopher tortoises as special residents. The key is also a Florida state park though there are none of the usual facilities visitors often find at parks such as bathrooms or stores. Bring what you need!
Egmont is part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Complex that includes the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge and Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge (plus the closed-to-the-public Pinellas and Passage Key refuges). Chassahowitzka and Crystal River are the places to see manatees, and to have peaceful water encounters. Chassahowitzka is accessible only by boat and public ramps are free. The refuge was designated in the 1940s largely to protect waterfowl along the river. Birds, too. The refuge is just about an hour’s drive north of St. Petersburg and Tampa and the contrast between urban and rural Florida couldn’t be more striking. Crystal River is famed for its manatee population and the manatee was the primary reason the refuge was created. This is prime habitat for the gentle sea cows thanks to the aquifer-fed springs. Some 600 manatees winter here. Most of the refuge is accessible only by boat.
Grab your camera and get to Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge. Oh, and have someone paddle while you snap photos of the amazing birds that flock to the 13 islands that make up the Cedar Keys. At one time, there were 200,000 birds – egrets, night herons, white ibis and cormorants among them – but those numbers began to fall when the birds where killed for feathers destined for women’s hats. Today, there are about 20,000. The rookery on Seahorse Key is closed March to June to provide a quiet spot for nesting birds. The rest of year, paddle to the islands with sunscreen, a picnic and a camera, of course. There are places to stay in Cedar Key and lots of seafood restaurants.
In Volusia County (that’s where Daytona Beach is), visitors can explore miles of artificial dikes at Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge built to provide a haven for migratory waterfowl. There are paths for bicyclists and hikers, most of whom carry binoculars or cameras. The refuge is open sunrise to sunset and a visitor center and store at the entrance, west of DeLeon Springs, is open November to June.
The historic Suwannee River, rather than a specific species of wildlife, was the reason the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge was created on the border of Dixie and Levy counties. The river is an important tributary that feeds into the Gulf of Mexico and is the habitat for gulf sturgeon and other migratory waterfowl. Hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing including photography, plus hiking and biking are prime activities here. There are also interpretive programs that can shed more light on the refuge and the wildlife.
There are many fascinating aspects to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge on the Space Coast. One is that it does not close for rocket launches. The refuge’s proximity to Cape Canaveral makes it a prime spot to see a launch, and to watch the thousands of migratory birds that flock here. Its 140,000 acres includes coastal dunes, saltwater marches, scrub, hardwood hammocks and pine flatwoods. Start your visit at the visitor information center, open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
The 400,000-acre Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge meanders through Georgia and Florida, adjacent to Georgia’s massive Okefenokee Swamp. This refuge is different from most in that there are campsites plus historic sites to investigate, including the Chesser Island Homestead. Wilderness canoeing is a popular activity and there are places to rent boats at entrances. There are also environmental and interpretive programs. The refuge and the swamp are part of an important Southern ecosystem as the headwaters for the Suwannee and St. Marys rivers. Threatened and endangered species, including the red-cockaded woodpecker, wood storks, indigo snakes, find safe haven here. Trails and elevated boardwalks give visitors a chance to see the wildlife.
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge are in the North Florida Refuge Complex. St. Marks hugs the Gulf coast for about 40 miles through three counties (Wakulla, Jefferson and Taylor). The beautiful St. Marks Lighthouse, built in 1842, is worth the visit alone. The keeper’s house is open to the public on the first Saturday of the month, but the lighthouse itself is not. The coastal marches and tidal creeks are home to all sort of underwater creatures and a draw to migratory waterfowl. First Sunday at the Refuge programs features talks about history and nature.
St. Vincent Wildlife Refuge is farther west along the coast, just past the Apalachicola National Forest, on two barrier islands and a stretch of the mainland. Visitors can take part in many activities here, though paramount might just be staring at the pristine Gulf of Mexico water. As is true with many of the state’s refuges, St. Vincent was initially set up to protect bird habitat but now it serves to protect other animals, including the endangered red wolf, which breeds here. Visitor activities include hiking, biking, kayaking, wildlife viewing and photography, fishing and hunting.
The strand of islands that make up the Florida Keys are special places and big draws for travelers. From the quiet of most of the Keys to the raucous fun of Key West, it’s the nature of America’s tropics that is their best asset. Several wildlife refuges aim to keep things that way. A visitor center on Big Pine Key in the Middle Key serves as information headquarters for the refuges in the Keys.
Though Florida is alligator country, the American crocodile shares the limelight at Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Key Largo. Alligators are freshwater reptiles in general and crocs like brackish water, a mixture of salt and fresh water. The refuge is closed to the general public but volunteers who commit to two months service, at least 24 hours a week, are allowed on the property. A butterfly garden is open to the public.
Not surprisingly, the great white heron is the star of the show at Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge near Big Pine Key. The refuge was established in 1938 to protect the birds in an area that’s known as the “back country.” The 200,000 acres of open water and islands draws boaters and fishermen, plus scuba divers and snorkelers. The underwater sights are even more impressive than what is above. Inspect (but don’t touch) coral and observe tropical fish and a shark or two.
Serious nature photographers, even amateurs, might want to join a photo club that focuses its lens on the Key West National Wildlife Refuge. Located 12 miles east of Key West, the refuge covers 375 watery square miles and is made up of the Marquesas Keys and 13 other small islands. It is one of the state’s oldest refuges, established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907, not long after Pelican Island Wildlife Refuge. Accessible only by boat, it’s best to stop at the visitor center in Big Pine Key to ask questions about how to plan a visit. One thing is for sure, if you make the trek, you’ll wonder if you’re really still in the United States. That’s how faraway and special this part of Florida is.
The visitor center is at the National Key Deer Refuge, established in 1957 to protect the endangered key deer that are indigenous to the islands. Visitors can drive to the Blue Hole observation platform to peer into what used to be a limestone quarry, now filled with fresh water and wildlife. Look down for alligators and turtles, and a wayward tarpon or two that ended up there after Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Look up for osprey, green herons and a multitude of frigate birds. There are a couple of nature trails for hikers that lead to beaches where relaxation is the order of the day. Be warned, the sun is hot, hot, hot here and there isn’t a lot shade. Go in the morning and bring sunscreen.