St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge ( 1986)

This impressive 65,000-acre refuge is literally filled with wildlife. 17,000 acres are designated wilderness area. On my visit, I see thousands of birds (St. Marks is a popular resting spot for migrating birds) and quite a few alligators. The refuge features a pleasant several-mile paved entrance road drive that winds through the refuge (a good place to bicycle, which I discover a few years later), and a historic lighthouse standing next to the shore along the gulf (see photo). Along the entrance road, there is an excellent visitor center. Impoundments within the refuge create miles of trails for hiking and mountain biking through salt and brackish marshes, hardwood swamps, pine flatwoods, and pine-oak bordering Apalachee Bay. The refuge and its trails provide superb bird watching opportunities with someone who brings binoculars and a bird guide.

The refuge is one of the rare places north of the Mexican border where the jaguarundi, a slender dark wildcat twice the size of domestic cats, is known to live. At peak times up to 80,000 ducks spend the winter here—redheads, buffleheads, ring-necks, and scamp. When there, I see great and little blue herons, snowy reddish and great egrets, and white and glossy ibises. In the winter up to 25,000 wintering waterfowl will be here.

In June, whole sections of refuge waters are covered with 300 acres of white-blooming water lilies. The refuge always ranks among the top locales on the annual Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count for number of species—generally over 150. 42 miles of the Florida National Scenic Trail winds through the refuge.

The refuge is also a popular migratory stop for the monarch butterfly in late October on their way to Mexico. On one visit, I am treated to an enormous flock of them fluttering in the bushes next to the trail.


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