Established in 1931 to protect habitat for migratory birds (and as we now know Monarch Butterflies) in the Big Bend Region of Florida’s Gulf Coast, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is one of the oldest refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System. Located 25 miles south of Tallahassee and just east of Florida’s Forgotten Coast (anchored by Apalachicola and St George Island), this area might be best nicknamed Florida’s Overlooked Coast. Built in 1842 the refuge’s namesake light house marks the entrance to the desolate Big Bend area. No beaches or islands of note for the next 220 miles. Which means no resorts, no crowds. Perfect for birders (and fishers).
83,000+ acres are inside its boundaries. 17,350 acres were designated by the U.S. Congress in 1975 as the St. Marks National Wilderness Area. The refuge and wilderness area include coastline estuary, 7 rivers cross the refuge, and inland upland ecosystems as well as marine habitat as it stretches into Apalachee Bay of the Gulf of Mexico. There are 150 miles of refuge roads and levee and developed trails, including 40 miles of the Florida National Scenic Trail. This offers a variety of access to the refuge’s many habitats: Upland forests, palm hammocks, fresh and brackish water marshes, freshwater lakes and impoundments, and tidal beach access to the Apalachee Bay.
In turn, this variety of accessible, but, with few exceptions, never crowded, habitats offers a corresponding variety of birding experiences. As of this writing, 337 species have been reported in eBird for the St. Marks NWR Hotspot. Birds are not the only possible observations for naturalists and photographers. iNaturalist’s St. Mark’s Species Check List lists 1334 confirmed species. Spotting alligators, white-tailed deer, river otters, and black bears are all possibilities, especially alligators, big alligators.
For a bonus, the refuge is the best place in Florida to see thousands of migrating Monarch Butterflies in the Fall. They even have their own festival the third Saturday of October.
No writeup about St. Marks NWR would be complete without highlighting ‘Pinky’. Pinky’ is a wild American Flamingo and Panhandle FL’s celebrity vagrant.
Wild American Flamingos’ range is the Caribbean, including deep South FL, with a small group in the Galapagos. They are considered native to FL, but the wild FL population disappeared around the turn of the 20th century. A few captives continued to exist in tourist attractions. Some escaped, mostly to the Everglades. There is growing evidence that, though not migratory but strong flyers, Flamingos from other Caribbean countries are adding to the south FL population.
Then there is Pinky’ Pinky is an example of a different type of vagrant. St Marks National Wildlife Refuge is known for vagrants brought to the refuge by strong hurricanes making landfall in Florida’s panhandle. Pinky arrived in 2018 a few days after Hurricane Michael. It is thought that Pinky hitchhiked (intentionally or unintentionally) from the Cuban or Yucatan populations.
Here photos from my trip in January this year: