Exploring Nature at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge

At 90,000 acres, this wildlife refuge is impossible to fully embrace in just a few days. But I’d like to share some photos of nature’s wonders that just might encourage you to visit here when you’re in the area.

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is in the panhandle of Florida and hugs the Apalachee Bay. It’s a wintering location for a large number of migratory birds. The area is absolutely huge! But don’t let its great expanse overwhelm you. Go to the Visitor Center first and explore the drive out to the lighthouse. Then broaden your wanderings by foot or bike.

Here’s a map of this section of the refuge that might be of help. The black and white line on the map is the paved public road. At the top of the map, the Visitor Center is indicated. But keep in mind this is just one portion of the Refuge.

Wetlands attract a diverse range of ducks and birds – birds of prey, shore birds, ducks, warblers, songbirds and many others. Hiking areas provide easy access for closer views. This White-eyed Vireo was singing melodiously near the overlook at a wetland just off the main drive. It’s easy to see why it’s called “white-eyed.”

These Ring-necked ducks are easy to spot with the male’s gleaming black head and back. But it’s the bill I find so interesting. It appears to almost have been hand painted. Nature’s wonders indeed!

We also saw American Wigeons, Blue-Winged Teals and others, along with the ubiquitous Pied-Billed Grebes. The Pied-billed is a rather small bird and actually not considered to be a duck at all. Its diving antics are fun to watch. I read that its ancient lineage is more closely related to (believe it or not) the Flamingo. But that is still debatable by many.

Speaking of Flamingos, another visitor to the refuge told us they had heard of sightings of one. So naturally, off we go scouting the park to find the elusive bird. And lo and behold, there it was hanging out on Mounds Pool #3. Much too far away for a decent photo, but it’s enough determine it was a Flamingo.

Shorebirds were plentiful. Like this Great Egret. Look closer at the photo and you will see a Little Blue heron directly behind it and what might be a Greater Yellow Legs just to the left. But don’t quote me, as identification of shore birds are not my forte.

One enjoyable way to explore the area of the Mounds ponds is by trail bike. You can cover lots of ground while still having binoculars and camera close at hand to stop and check out the creatures you see. There are quite a few ponds there with dikes around them for easy access and observation.

Creatures come in a variety of sizes and shapes. And they co-exist. Like this alligator and the Greater Yellow Legs. The angle of this photo distorts the closeness of the two, but I still think that bird is rather brave.

The scenery in this area is breathtaking, with wide expanses of water and marsh grasses blending together. It’s quiet out here, with wind gently blowing through grasses and occasional calls of birds drifting through the area. If I had to define the term “peaceful,” this would be it. It’s a place where you can lose life’s distractions, time-commitments and “just be.”

In the photo below, a Tri-colored heron blends into its colorful surroundings, becoming at once an intricate and natural part of the scenery.

Closer to the shoreline is the famous St. Marks lighthouse. It’s located on the east side of the mouth of the St. Marks river and is second oldest light house in Florida. It opened in 1831 and has had several renovations. The lighthouse and keepers quarters were closed when we were there this past winter. The Fresnell lens in the lighthouse was removed during one of the renovations and is on display at the Visitors Center. A replica lens is now in its place in the lighthouse and is lit seasonally according to the US Fish & Wildlife Service website.

On the shoreline beneath that lighthouse, shorebirds are prolific. Bonaparte’s Gull, Terns of several species, Sandpipers, Plovers and others.

I was fortunate to be able to photograph a Piping Plover. Note the bands on both legs. After a bit of research, I was able to report this little guy to the USGS for their banding project research. Coastal populations of the Piping Plover are considered threatened here, while inland populations are considered endangered.

Here’s another shorebird I rarely see, the American Oystercatcher. It favors coastal areas with sand and shell beaches as well as salt water marsh areas. And yes, it does eat oysters as well as clams and other mollusks. This is a poor photo, even with a super zoom lens. These guys were quite shy.

The Wildlife Refuge sports not only coastal areas but also inland lakes. If you bring your canoe, Otter Lake is a wonderful place to spend a quiet morning. Its banks are entirely lined with Bald Cypress trees, draped with Spanish moss swaying in the breeze overhead. Its deep blue waters encourages one to paddle gently, hugging the shoreline and exploring its depths.

Osprey love this lake. Seems it’s the perfect habitat to raise their young. Great nesting areas and plenty of fish. We saw at least a dozen Osprey nests while we paddled the shore.

Osprey nests are typically found in tall trees or other structures which provide good visibility for the pair to protect their nest. At Otter Lake, many nests could be found high atop dead trees lining the lake. Nests are typically built of sticks with grasses, bark and other materials lining the inside. It is common for osprey to return to the same nest the following year. Osprey are largely monogamous.

Osprey are beautiful birds of prey. These raptors can be up to two feet in length and have a six-foot wingspan. Their diet is almost exclusively fish. I’ve read they dive for fish feet first. And they are exquisite creatures when in flight. Note the coloration of the wings in the photo below.

Otter Lake also sported a few other “black and white” birds. Wood Storks. These huge birds that can be four feet tall with five-feet wingspans. They nest in colonies in Winter and Spring in Florida. Their diet is primarily fish, but they also eat other small aquatic creatures, even baby alligators. They’re the only native stork in North America. I think they have a rather “prehistoric” look, but perhaps that’s why I am drawn to them. I don’t think many would call them beautiful.

And before we leave the wildlife refuge, I’d like to provide you with just one more look. This one impressed me with its color vibrancy. The green adorning the rocks could have been angel hair, it looked that soft and silky.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief look at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. It’s a truly wondrous area that has so much to explore. I know it’s on my list to visit again in the future. I hope it’s now on yours.

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.