Wednesday, October 12, 2016

National wildlife refuges offer cool travel experiences

Egrets are just one of the bird species found in Merritt Island.
One of the main reasons I travel is to see wildlife close up, to see wild animals in their native habitat.

I've been more than fortunate in my lifetime, that I've seen so many different wild animals in so many different countries: lions and gorillas in Africa, crocodiles and capybaras in South America, orangutans and gibbons in Borneo, to name but a few.

While there are still several on my list of "want-to's" (kangaroos and koalas in Oz, komodos in Indonesia to name but a few), I certainly feel extremely grateful that I've seen what I have.

Some of my best experiences have come right here in North America. And that's what the focus of this piece will be: wildlife at home. More specifically, wildlife found in the National Wildlife Refuges of the U.S., because it is National Wildlife Refuge Week.

NWR's are not the same as national parks, although some exist as part of a national park. In the U.S., National Parks are located in unique natural places and developed to serve a large number of visitors. Facilities for cars and walking are given priority.  

National wildlife refuges, on the other hand, come in all sizes, from tiny to enormous. On average there are more than 10 refuges per state (with 560 nationally). Their primary function is to help conserve wildlife, fish and plant resources and their habitats.

When I started looking at the number of parks I've visited in the U.S., compared with wildlife refuges, I was surprised. I've been to five NWR's but only a pair of NP's - and in one of those parks, I spent much of my time in the NWR.

Anyway, here, without further ado, are some thumbnail sketches of the refuges I've visited.

Merritt Island NWR. Located near Titusville, Florida, this place is a bird-watcher's paradise. I spotted my first roseate spoonbills here. It was also here I saw some of my first wild American alligators. Along with the wildlife there, the refuge is very unique, in that it sits in the shadow of NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

Florida Panther NWR. Just a short drive from Naples, Florida, this spot is set aside to try to conserve the highly-endangered Florida panther (the animal, not the NHL team!). The Florida panther is an endangered subspecies of Puma concolor, and is the only breeding population east of the Mississippi River. While hiking through the refuge, I didn't spy any panthers, just some deer and woodpeckers.
A woodpecker in the Key Deer NWR.

National Key Deer NWR. Located in the lower Florida Keys, it consists of about 9,200 acres of land comprised of pine rockland forests, tropical hardwood hammocks, freshwater wetlands, salt marsh wetlands, and mangrove forests. It's home to the tiny Key deer - the only place in the world they're found. Didn't see any during my tramp around the Jack C. Watson wildlife trail, but again saw a red-bellied woodpecker. 

Ten Thousand Islands NWR. Situated in Everglades National Park, this area is not typically what you might envision when someone says "everglades." 

It sits right on the Gulf of Mexico, and the islands are mainly mangrove islands. While paddling on a four day day kayak trip there, I managed to see dolphins, turtles, manatees, raccoons, and numerous types of birds, including a cardinal, two ospreys, herons, and several egrets.

Okefenokee NWR. Just north of the Florida panhandle in southern Georgia, I spent three days canoeing and camping in this wonderful reserve with Okefenokee Adventures, the go-to adventure tour operator for the area. Our guide was very knowledgeable about the natural and cultural history of the area.

Alligators: one of the apex predators in the Okefenokee.

We saw several alligators, some deer, a few snakes, and numerous birds - including a sandhill crane, green heron and some egrets. A wonderful place for a naturalist to hang out, it's only accessible by canoe.

These are just a few of the NWR's around the USA, so if you get a chance this week, check out one of the refuges in your neck of the woods. Some refuges offer activities to mark the week, or you can just go on your own and enjoy nature. Because as Henry David Thoreau remarked, "We need the tonic of wildness..."

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