On March 14, 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt established Pelican Island, the only brown pelican rookery left on the east coast of Florida, as America’s first National Wildlife Refuge. Thousands of pelicans were being killed for their feathers, fashionable in ladies’ hats, and for their eggs; several local residents including Paul Kroegel and Frank Chapman took it upon themselves to stop the hunters and protected the birds from future harm. Luckily for the Fives, this special place is located just off of Route 1 in Vero Beach.
Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge provides protected habitat for not only pelicans but also for an abundance of wildlife. Our campsite being just up the road at Sebastian Inlet State Park, we were able to spend two mornings exploring the reserve. Our first morning we took a stroll along the Centential Trial. After winding by a lagoon where numerous bird species were fishing for their breaksfast, we came to an unusual boardwalk. Puzzled at first at why each plank had a place name and year, we soon realized we were walking back in time through all of the National Wildlife Refuges. Seeing refuge after refuge in such a visual way was deeply moving and really helped the younger Fives appreicate the sheer number of proected places. Some planks were even grouped together to commemorate important conservation milestones, such as 1980’s Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act which protected over 100 million acres of intact ecosystems and wildlife habitat. The last plank of course was for Pelican Island itself and came right before the observation tower looking out over the island. By the time we made our way back down, we were dreaming of volunteering at many of these protected areas in the future.
We returned to the reserve the next morning and challenged ourselves on the two-mile Joe Michael Memorial Trial, named after a local citrus grower who had spearheaded efforts to preserve land surrounding the island and keep it free from development. The mowed path wound through a mangrove forest where we spotted many crabs as they scuttled to find refuge in their holes. We then were able to see some bird species up close from the observation tower as we ate lunch. All together we saw pelicans, egrets, comorants, spoonbills, storks, and several other birds we couldn’t quite identify. Our first-hand observations helped us discover three different ways that birds fish (diving from the sky, standing in the water, and diving underwater) and how birds’ bodies help them specialize in a certain feeding technique.
Birding isn’t all this area of Florida offered the Fives. Between the wildlife refuges (yes, there is more than one) and state parks, the area has an exceptional amount of land and water preserved for wildlife and human recreation. Sebestian Inlet is one of Florida’s premere fishing destinations and also home to the McLarty Treasure Museum which sits on the location of a camp used by the survivors of the 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet that shipwrecked just off shore. We were able to learn about the recovery of the treasure that was destined for Spain and see many artifacts from the 1700’s. While the fish and the treasure were impressive we had been dreaming of seeing manatees during our visit. Luckily on our final evening while walking the state park’s northern jetty, Five Spice spotted a manatee heading through the inlet from the Indian River. We watched as it sped along the sandy bottom and around the jetty to the open ocean, surfacing evey once and a while to breathe. Meanwhile the many surfers in the water were competing for our attention, providing inspiration to us all as we have been hard at work practicing our bodysurfing over the last week.
All in all, the Fives could get used to calling this area home. Spotting a bunny over dinner on our last night only made the connection stronger since we have spent countless hours watching them at our previous house. High Five is probably the most loco for lagamorphs out of us all and delighted in chasing it around yelling, “BUN!” He continued his chant well into the evening as we retired to our tent for bedtime, and other campers likely heard an unexpected addition to the twilight chorus of tree frogs and insects.