We all know and love and head to, these days, U.S. national parks. Many don’t realize, however, that the 560-plus National Wildlife Refuge System is a totally separate entity from the U.S. Department of Interior, with a mission to put wildlife first.
Florida’s 30 refuges harbor some of the nation’s rarest, most valued, and critical creatures. Although wildlife comes first, most of the refuges also offer recreation to complement and facilitate wildlife watching. Listed with their iconic fauna, these 11 sites (listed in no particular order) take you directly to where the most charismatic critters live in the Sunshine State. Note that in some cases, the iconic creatures are nocturnal, protected, or reclusive and not all that easy to spot. You can, in any case, visit their habitat and often — if you’re observant — find signs of their presence such as scat, tracks, fur, and feathers.
1. Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge: Manatees
I scratched the baby manatee with one hand (as is all that is allowed) under its chin as it hung vertically before me in the clear spring waters. Then the sweetest moment maybe in my whole life happened. It crossed its two fins over my forearm and squeezed me to its chest, to its heart.
They are the teddy bears of the marine world. These gentle giants are known as sea cows or manatees. The prehistoric, 3,000-pound creatures are actually more closely related to elephants and equally delightful. At Crystal River NWR, about 1.5 hours north of Tampa, you can see them from above along the boardwalk at Three Sisters Springs, but an immersive experience snorkeling with the manatees is the ultimate. Shuttle service to the springs runs during peak manatee season, mid-November through late March, when the marine mammals come in from the Gulf of Mexico to warm up in 72-degree-Fahrenheit spring waters.
Pro Tip: A number of local charters offer regulated snorkel tours during the season. I personally recommend Bird’s Underwater Dive Center.
2. National Key Deer Refuge: Key Deer
North of Key West on Big Pine Key, the National Key Deer Refuge was created specifically to protect its eponymous subspecies of endangered, diminutive deer (roughly the height of a golden retriever), whose population hunters had decimated in the 1940s. Get off the main roads to explore refuge backroads, which take you to a blue hole, where alligators and waterbirds gather, and the habitat of the Bambi-sized white-tailed deer, which is off-the-beaten-path. Mornings and evenings are the best time to see them out feeding.
Pro Tip: Truth be told, some of the best sightings are in local neighborhoods, where they munch on hibiscus and other garden delights. Be respectful, and do not trespass on private property if you spot one.
3. J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge: Roseate Spoonbill
What bird is big and pink and eats with a spoon? Although they are often mistaken for flamingos, roseate spoonbills are more common in Florida, especially in the Everglades habitat like the one found at “Ding” Darling NWR on Sanibel Island — one of America’s hotspots for coastal bird species. Although they are more prevalent in the migratory months of fall to spring, the spoonbills hang out year-round in these parts, but tend to move out of the spotlight in summer. At “Ding” Darling, you can usually and easily spot them from Wildlife Drive, on hiking trails, and from a kayak tour.
Pro Tip: Ask at the free Visitor & Education Center, the Wildlife Drive fee booth, or from the rovers who volunteer along the drive. Word spreads fast about spoonbill sightings, and anyone in tune to the hotline can clue you in.
4. St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge: Monarch Butterflies
October brings a different blaze of orange and yellows to St. Marks NWR, near Tallahassee on Florida’s panhandle. Namely, monarch butterflies. They congregate in thick, winged, breathtaking flocks that make trees and even the refuge’s historic lighthouse seem to come alive as the butterflies cover them all aflutter. St. Marks, perched on the northern shore of the Gulf of Mexico, is also known for other varieties of butterflies plus the red-cockaded woodpecker it has helped save from extinction.
5. Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge: Sea Turtles
One-fourth of the world’s population of loggerhead turtles and one-third of its green turtles nest at Archie Carr NWR near Melbourne, named for an early champion of endangered sea turtles.
Prime season runs June through October. During June and July, the turtles labor up the same beaches where they were born to dig nests and drop 100 or so ping-pong-ball-sized eggs. State-regulated sea turtle walks allow participants to responsibly watch the heartwarming nesting process.
During August and September comes my favorite part — hatching season — when the comic, adorable babies boil out of the nest and scurry down the beach to the sea. The refuge’s friends group conducts digs during those months to rescue any little ones that didn’t make it out and to educate program participants about turtle survival rates, lifestyles, and conservation.
6. Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge: Alligators
This mammoth, 140,000-acre refuge is home to more than 500 species of animals, including a variety of rare Florida creatures such as manatees and the Florida scrub jay. You can find alligators in many areas of Merritt Island NWR, near Titusville and the Kennedy Space Center. Look along Wildlife Drive or any of its six hiking trails.
Pro Tip: Alligators stay submerged in cold temperatures, and are more likely to be seen basking in the sun during the spring and fall. It should go without saying: Keep your distance.
7. Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge: Crocodiles
Alligators may be plentiful in Florida, but Everglades territory is the only place to find the American crocodile, a saltwater species. They nest in Crocodile Lake NWR, headquartered in Key Largo. In adjacent local waters, you can spot their pointy snouts (which distinguish them from alligators with their more rounded front bumpers) floating like logs in the water, or perched on banks, mouths wide open to thermoregulate.
Pro Tip: For the protection of these endangered creatures, no public access is available except for a butterfly garden. A good, safe place for spotting crocs in the water is Alabama Jacks — a popular and funky waterfront restaurant north of Key Largo.
8. St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge: Red Wolves
An island on the panhandle accessible only by boat, St. Vincent NWR has been breeding red wolves since 1990 to help replenish endangered populations in the southeastern U.S. One breeding pair and no more than two subsequent annual litters roam freely on the island, fitted with radio telemetry collars to allow refuge staff to track them. Visitors more often hear than see the shy and reclusive wolves.
Pro Tip: Check with the Chamber of Commerce in nearby Apalachicola for vendors who will provide boating services for visitors to and from the island refuge for a fee.
9. Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge: Florida Panthers
Critically endangered and requiring a long range of territory, Florida panthers benefit from Florida Panther NWR for its wide and wild expanses (26,400 acres southeast of Naples connecting to other refuge lands), research, population recovery, and education. Sightings are rare because the cats, the most endangered mammals in the eastern U.S., are nocturnal. Two trails allow visitor access to the refuge. On the longer, 1.3-mile trail, you are more likely to find the tracks of panthers, as well as deer and black bears.
Pro Tip: Watch the refuge website for news of educational events on and offsite, including an open house in March and a panther festival in November.
10. Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge: Brown Pelicans
America’s first national wildlife refuge came into existence in 1903 near Vero Beach under President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration. For its 100th anniversary, the government built the Centennial Trail with an observation tower overlooking the Indian River Lagoon and a boardwalk that commemorates each of the refuges in existence at the time. Pelican Island NWR gets its name from its signature flamboyant bird that the refuge was established to protect from hunters and egg poachers. More than 140 species of birds, however, use the 5.5-acre rookery island for roosting, nesting, and feeding.
11. Arthur R. Marshall-Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge: Snail Kite
In eastern Palm Beach County, Loxahatchee NWR’s snail kite population runs the risk of extinction as its main food source — the apple snail — disappears from its Everglades habitat. In the more than 145,000 acres of swamp and marsh, the endangered raptors find their ideal habitat. More than 250 species of birds join them in calling “Lox” home. Keep an eye peeled for buffing up your birder life list on nearly 50 miles of trails for hiking, cycling, and paddling.
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