By Janet K. Keeler
Florida is teeming with wildlife, most famously prehistoric alligators and showy long-legged coastal birds. Manatees, dolphins and varieties of sea and box turtles are also among the state’s natural beauties. And, the Atlantic Flyway ecosystem runs through the state, a north-south highway for migratory birds.
The nation’s wildlife refuge system was born in Florida in 1903., with Pelican Island Wildlife Refuge. The state now boasts 29 refuges, the third-most in the country, behind only California and North Dakota. There are other federally protected lands, including national parks in the Everglades and Dry Tortugas and national seashore designations in Canaveral and the Gulf Islands. Many of the 175 Florida state parks are havens for wildlife, such as Blue Springs State Park in Volusia County. The springs are closed to human swimmers in the winter to let the manatees roam free in the warm waters.
Besides public refuges and preserves, private facilities rescue, rehabilitate and protect wildlife, not all of which are indigenous to Florida.
Here’s a roundup of regional preserves and refuges to start your Florida vacation bucket list. Always remember to call or email prior to a visit to find out the latest operation information.
Get your paddles and camera ready to explore the water around the 13 islands that make up the Cedar Keys. Cedar Key (singular) is where visitors find shops, accommodations and restaurants. There’s award-winning clam chowder at Tony’s Seafood Restaurant that’s not to be missed but the water is the attraction for nature, and especially, bird lovers. The refuge protects egrets, night herons, white ibis and cormorants, all fine subjects for photographers. The rookery on Seahorse Key is a quiet nesting place for reddish egrets and roseate spoonbills, and is off limits to people from March to June. But the waters that surround this serene spot in Florida are always open for business.
There are an impressive variety of birds that call Florida home but the bald eagle may not be the first to come to mind. However, only Minnesota and Alaska have a higher density of breeding bald eagles. The Audubon Society has been a grand protector of the national bird and the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey and its EagleWatch volunteers keep an eye on nests throughout the state. Visitors to the Maitland center can see falcons, hawks, vultures and several types of owls (none wearing glasses), and can learn more about rehabilitation efforts from educational lectures and other programs.
Unwanted and abused exotic wildlife, such as wolves, jaguars, bears and lions, find refuge at the St. Augustine Wild Reserve, which also goes by the name Soul of the Wolf Wildlife Sanctuary. The seven-acre facility is northwest of St. Augustine and welcomes visitors for several guided tours each week. Reservations are required for the approximately two-hour golf-cart tours. The animals roam in their own spaces separated from people by chain-link fences, which makes it difficult to take clear photos and is why photography, both still and video, is prohibited. St. Augustine is the oldest city in the United States and has the historic sites to match plus a sprawling outdoor outlet mall. The wild reserve adds another attraction to the city’s long list.
St. Marks wildlife dazzles visitors year-round on 80,000 acres in three Panhandle counties and along 43 miles of the beautiful Gulf of Mexico coast. Many visitors head to Florida in the winter, but the hot and humid summer months have something to offer too. In July, wood storks wade in shallow ponds. August heralds gator hatchlings and does tending newborns. And when the leaves start changing in up north in October, St. Marks has its own color show with the arrival of the migratory monarch butterflies. Like people, many migratory birds are fond of St. Marks in the winter, another busy season in the refuge. Bring binoculars and cameras, and wear good walking shoes for the hiking trails that offer good vantage points for wildlife.
Florida is known as a boater and paddler paradise because of its 1,200 miles of shoreline and extensive inland springs and lakes. But a place for horseback riders? Only those in the know might know about Goethe State Forest, which spans 53,500 acres in Alachua and Levy counties in the state’s Nature Coast. There are several trails that welcome hikers and trotters, and the park is part of the Florida Forest Service’s Trailtrotter Trail list. Hikers and riders can expect to see plenty of birds because Goethe is also on the Great Florida Birding Trail, but an observant visitor could spy a bobcat or a bear. Several companies offer horse rentals for guided rides through the forest trails, including Orange Blossom Trail Rides.
In the shadow of the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Brevard County is this 140,000-acre wildlife refuge, home to a multitude of critters that live in a variety of habitats, including salt marches, pinewood flats and Florida scrub. Endangered and protected species such as gopher tortoises, the Florida scrub jay and the wee Southeastern beach mouse plus 385 species of migratory and resident birds coexist at Merritt Island. Hiking and fishing are among the top visitor activities. The seven-mile Black Point Wildlife Drive one-way auto tour takes visitors along a dike road through marsh impounds and pine flatwoods. Keep your eyes peeled for alligators, river otters and bobcats.
Tiny Egmont Key and its 1848 lighthouse are at the mouth of Tampa Bay and only accessible by private watercraft or guide boat from Fort De Soto Park at the tip of Pinellas County. The 300-acre key just 2 miles from the mainland is home to a multitude of birds plus the protected gopher tortoise. About 1,500 gopher tortoises inhabit the island, the densest population anywhere in the state. Egmont Key has a military history, too, and visitors can prowl the ruins of an 18th century fort built to protect the mainland during the Spanish-American War. Birdwatching, hiking, shelling and hanging out on the beach are the most popular activities.
The lumbering, gentle manatee is one of Florida’s most beloved water creatures. Also called sea cows, the mostly-vegetarian mammals can reach a whopping 1,300 pounds. They seek out warmer waters in the winter, often congregating in the effluence of power plants. In the case of the Manatee center in Ft. Pierce, that’s the long-retired Henry B. Plant Power Plant. Visitors to the center, which straddles the Indian River Lagoon west of the Atlantic Ocean, can take part in educational programs that are part of the center’s mission to protect these special critters. Manatees can be viewed from an observation walkway. Better yet, the two-story observation tower shows how the gentle giants huddle together and also provides a vantage point for bottlenose dolphins.
This Orlando facility is dedicated to rescuing, raising, rehabilitating and releasing injured and orphaned native Florida species. It’s a lofty goal fueled financially by visitor fees, fund-raising events and benefactors. Visitors can experience the Eagles Roost on a self-guided wildlife walk, stopping at enclosures along the way to see red tailed hawks, a variety of owls, iguanas, lemurs, bobcats and tortoises. A half-mile walk through the enclosures leads to Lake Hart and an observation tower.
Experience wildlife on foot or from your car at Lake Apopka North Shore, a varied recreation area managed by the St. Johns River Water Management District. There are canoe and boat launches, picnic shelters, restrooms and plenty of parking. Biking and hiking trails crisscross the 11-mile, one-way wildlife drive that takes visitors through an area that was once underwater. Driving slowly – the speed limit is just 10 mph – makes it easier to see alligators, turtles, snakes and birds (especially in July when swallow-tailed kites forage the north shore for food on their way to South America). A read-aloud narration can be assigned to a passenger.
Key West is known for its wild life thanks to fun-seekers who flock to the dining and drinking establishments along Duval Street. On the quieter, southern end of Duval there are also swarms of wildlife. Some 60 winged species from around the world flutter in glorious spectacle at the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory. The butterflies are farm raised and transported to the facility. The conservatory provides a quiet break from Duval partying via a stroll through the tropical garden that is also home to colorful birds. This is a popular wedding venue, and a nighttime tour offers a different experience. Can’t make it in person? Check out the live webcam.
Sanibel Island drips with relaxing vibes for residents and visitors. You’ll have to relax even more as you drive the 4.2-mile paved road through the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. The speed limit is 15 mph and there’s no turning back once you start; plan on at least an hour. The 6,300-acre refuge takes up about a third of the island. Keep your eyes peeled for roseate spoonbills, herons, egrets, ibis and alligators. There are spots to pull over and take photos or slow down the pace even more. A guided tram tour is helpful for those who want to know more about the area’s ecology and history. The refuge has been protecting wildlife and welcoming visitors for 75 years and started its life in 1945 as the Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge.
Florida takes its turtles seriously, especially those who lay their eggs on busy beaches. Volunteers and conservators guard those nests fiercely as they wait for hatchlings to head out to sea. The Loggerhead Marine Life Center in Juno Beach is part education facility and part turtle hospital where rescued turtles get TLC. Guided hikes into the coastal hammock are conducted on Sunday mornings during the mild winter months. In June and July, there are evening guided beach turtle walks by reservation only. Reservations are also needed in August and September for the 7 a.m. daily nest excavation talks on Juno, Jupiter or Tequesta beaches. Visitors can learn more about efforts to protect loggerheads, leatherbacks and green turtles during year-round programming, which includes activities for children.
Some of Florida’s wildlife preserves and refuges are a short drive from busy metropolitan areas. Not so Ten Thousand Islands, which sprawls over 35,000 acres south of Naples. It is a destination stop, especially since much of it is best accessed by boat. Most of the refuge is mangrove forest home to manatee, peregrine falcons and wood storks as well at green, loggerhead and Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles. The bird population swells during annual migrations and the many species are best spied from October to March. The Marsh Trail offers a good vantage point from a two-story observation tower. The 2.2-mile trail is the sole trail at the refuge and only the first quarter-mile is paved.
Florida’s delicate ecosystem plays out at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, an Audubon Society facility 45 miles northeast of Naples. It is a natural and fiercely protected natural oasis with a 2.5-mile elevated, accessible boardwalk that meanders through pine flatwoods, through a wet prairie onto a marsh and then into the world’s largest remaining virgin bald cypress forest. The summer rainy season brings out the wildlife and the best way to know what’s been spotted on the day of your visit is to check out the chalkboard at the visitor center. You might hear a hooting barred owl or see a gator lounging in a pond. The real star is the threatened wood stork, whose numbers have dwindled to about 10,000 from a high of 150,000 in the Southern Eastern United States. Corkscrew has the largest wood stork rookery in the nation.
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