Florida's Big Bend Wildlife Refuges

Except for Alaska, Florida has the longest coastline of any state—more than 8400 miles, including islands, inlets and estuaries. While there's much wildlife all along the state's intricate shores, the sparsely populated Big Bend region stands out as a prime destination for experiencing the state's subtropical flora and fauna.

Culturally, this part of the state is more Dixie than glitz. The people have more in common with their neighbors in rural Georgia than their fellow Floridians in Miami or the Florida Keys. A trip to this part of the state offers a uncomplicated chance to slow down and get back to nature, rather than strategizing about how to beat the crowds or your dinner-time fashion quotient. To beat the heat, humidity and insects, visit Big Bend in the winter, especially January through March.

Imagine some enormous, continent-eating monster took a big chomp out of northwest Florida, and you have a sense of the shape of Big Bend. Come to think of it, the entire Florida peninsula has been sort of like a bobbing apple, submerging and re-emerging from a series of ancient seas within relatively short periods of time. The coastal lowlands along Big Bend are the most recent landmasses to have emerged from the sea, and the surrounding seabed is still very shallow for miles out. Protected from the tumult of the Atlantic Ocean by a thick hunk of peninsula, Big Bend is what's known as a 'low-energy' coastline: slow-moving rivers meeting the Gulf of Mexico at its most placid.

But if the water, wind, and people here tend to be languid, the wildlife scene is high energy. Five fascinating National Wildlife Refuges punctuate the coast.

St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) is an island with no human inhabitants. Once a private game preserve stocked with exotics—African zebras, Asian deer and the like— the island now harbors hundreds of bird species, loggerhead sea turtle nesting sites, and even a family of red wolves.

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is one of the great ones for outdoor recreation. The refuge has 75 miles of trail, including 41 miles of the Florida National Scenic Trail. The list of wildlife that spends time here is almost endless: monarch butterflies, alligators, mammals, rare plants and birds, birds birds.

As far as wildlife goes, the Suwannee River picks up at its mouth where it left off in its headwaters in the Okefenokee Swamp. The Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge is almost all wetland, and most of the action is in the water. manatees loll about offshore, sea turtles feed on marsh grass, and alligators lurk everywhere. And look up—over 250 species of birds have been recorded at the refuge.

Cedar Keys is an offbeat community of artists and fishermen, and its neighboring Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge is special as well. Epic naturalist John Muir aquired his appreciation for nature here as he wandered the richly diverse beaches, coastal marshes and upland forests of the area. Researchers have counted over 200,000 nesting birds here, including 8,000 white ibis. That's a lot of white ibis.

Crytsal River and Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuges are both havens for manatees. Crystal River, fed by a 600 freshwater springs, attract manatees in the cooler month when the colder open water of the gulf would be lethal. The refuge is critical habitat for 15 to 20 percent of the U.S. manatee population Chassahowitzka's prime estuarine habitat shelters many species of birds, black bear, deer, turkey and numerous birds. The refuge lands of both Crystal River and Chassahowitzka are accessible only by boat.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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