St. Marks, FL 32355
How to get there: From Tallahassee, FL-363 south to US-98, east on US-98 to Newport, south 3 miles on County Route 59 to the visitor center.
Hours: Open year round during daylight hours (dawn to dusk). The Visitor Center is open from 8:15 am to 4:15 pm Monday to Friday, 10 am to 5 pm Saturdays and Sundays and closed on federal holidays.
Best Time: Fall through Spring offers the best viewing of migrating birds. Spring is excellent for the mating season for all birds and other animals. Walking and hiking the refuge is best during the cooler months.
Famous for: Established in 1931 for the protection of migratory ducks and geese, it is one of the oldest refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System.
How to visit: Begin with the Visitors Center to get a feel for the refuge. Lighthouse Road offers many vantage points for viewing the park and wildlife. Buy the drive guide for the 7-mile road from the Visitors Center to Apalachee Bay. There are several hikes and walks from the Visitor’s Center and along the road. A 35-mile segment of the Florida National Scenic Trail runs across the refuge. The Mounds Interpretive Trail is one-mile long and offers a wide range of the refuge’s habitats and is good for bird and wildlife viewing. Take time to visit the St. Marks Lighthouse built in 1832 and still in use today.
Habitat: Located along the Gulf Coast of northwest Florida, the refuge includes coastal marshes, islands, tidal creeks and estuaries of seven north Florida rivers, and is home to a diverse community of plant and animal life.
Wildlife: There are a wide range of migrating birds, as well as different frogs, small mammals, snakes, alligators, and butterflies.
Sunday, February 2, 1997
St. Marks NWR, FL
This morning at first light I entered St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge on the coast of the Florida panhandle near the town of Newport. I surprised a whitetail deer just inside the gate along the road. Driving a bit, I found a beautiful wet forest. I stopped to photograph the trees and the marsh habitat. And moving a bit more, spent 20 minutes or so photographing a wetland area with standing water, saw palmettos, grasses, and beautiful morning light.
Not far down the road, I saw gray and black shapes in some trees part way across the marsh and I stopped for a look. These were my first Anhingas, and I watched as they perched and dried their wings. These birds do not have waterproof feathers like other water birds, and must spread their wings to dry before making long flights. I watched as one flew almost directly at me, and perched in a tree to my left. He flew again, dropped into the water, and submerged, leaving only his long neck and head sticking above the surface, looking like a serpent. Anhingas have a long pointed beak which they use to spear fish, and this distinguishes them from the cormorants, which have a hook at the end of their bills. The Anhinga also has a very long tail, which necessitates its perching in trees, while the cormorants can alight on the ground.
Wading birds here are abundant, and I saw many White Ibisis, Great Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets, Tricolored Herons, Little Blue Herons, and even saw an immature Reddish Egret posing in the pond just north of the lighthouse at the far end of the drive. I watched this bird fishing, and his approach was very active, moving quickly and scaring fish into motion, until he could catch them. He then flew into camera range on a small island of grasses about 50 feet from the edge of the pond, where he posed for a good half hour. This bird was an identification challenge, as his coloration was mostly gray, with some cinnamon mixed in over his body. The neck was more reddish, but not so much as the adults would be, and the head was even more brownish-red. The bill was almost black, as were the legs. As the field guide I am using (since I can’t find my National Geographic field guide) didn’t show the immature Reddish, I was confused because none of the egrets or herons had a black bill except the Snowy, and I knew it wasn’t that. It must be either a Little Blue or a Reddish. At that point, a Little Blue flew in and landed not 4 feet from the Reddish, and my bird was much bigger. With the help of a few other birders with better field guides, we decided on the Reddish as the most probable bird. I made a few photos for a record.
At the same location, the Reddish identifier next to me called out for Snipe, and we watched a small bird flush and fly across the saltwater marsh. Five minutes later, he called out again, and 6 more flew. We found another two standing across the pond, and with his spotting scope and field guide, we confirmed that they, too, were Common Snipes. Notable are the black and white stripes that run longitudinally across the head, and when the bird looks at you, the stripes come to an axis and radiate from the bill.
Boat-tailed Grackles are common here, and they blessed the air with their strange gurgling noises at the end of the road at the lighthouse.
On the way back out at the end of the day, I discovered a large roosting area for the white wading birds and the Anhingas. Across the large pond near the picnic area, the trees were filled with hundreds of White Ibises, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, and Anhingas. This is a place I will return to in the morning for first light, and hope to photograph them against the rising sun.
Other animals of interest today were an American Alligator, a large turtle, a brown rabbit on the Levee Trail, and back at the campground immediately across the street from the refuge entrance, Toshi hissed and growled at several resident raccoons.