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Pelican Island
For the Birds

“Living on the bluff, Paul could always watch the river and the bird life on it, especially the pelicans, which were numerous. From the top of the bluff he could see Pelican Island, to the east in the Indian River, where the pelicans went to roost and nest. He came to love them.” This excerpt is from a US Fish and Wildlife Services pamphlet. The bluff is the Ais Indian Shell Mound located in Sebastian, Florida. Paul, is Paul Kroegel, the first warden of Pelican Island. Pelican Island just happens to be the first US Wildlife Refuge established in 1903, commissioned by President Theodore Roosevelt.

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white pelicans, Pelican Island, wildlife refuge, birds, indian river, pelicans, sebastian florida, reservation, wabasso, nesting, beaches, bike trail, south beach mountain, indian river lagoon point road, adventure, lagoon, johnson sea grass, australian pine tree, white ibis, mullet, dolphins

After growing up on the bluff in Sebastian, and spending years attempting to scare off hunters and sportsmen from the thousands of pelicans, Paul was hired for $1 per month, as warden of the Pelican Island Reservation in 1903 by President Roosevelt. Paul lived his passion for the next 23 years, in 1926 when warden services were discontinued by the federal government. Early this year the Refuge celebrated its 100th anniversary Today, Pelican Island, located between Sebastian and Wabasso on the central east coast of Florida, is a thriving reminder that what we do now can make a difference tomorrow.

My Mom and I traveled to Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge from Rockledge, Florida to the sleepy yet “wild” town of Sebastian. This is the kind of “wild” that I like. The foliage appeared thicker and thicker as we drove closer to the beach. The drive down A1A, the road that hugs the coast from the tip to the bottom of Florida, was quiet and lush. We came across an unexpected wildlife refuge on our drive north to the entrance of Pelican Island. It’s Archie Carr Wildlife Refuge, the refuge developed to provide nesting beaches for sea turtles. We drove into the main entrance to Pelican Island onto the historic Jungle Trail. My Mom was thrilled with the soothing experience of the canopy of trees overhead. The view reminded her of the areas she visited in Minnesota growing up.

After a brief visit to the developing Pelican Island Visitors Center we headed north, past Sebastian Inlet State Park, to the State Park Marina to catch our boat ride out to Pelican Island. As we pulled into the parking lot I looked up to find what else but a mountain bike trail? The South Beach Mountain Bike Trail offers 2.8 miles long and offers views of Maritime Hammock, Coastal Marsh and the Indian River Lagoon Point Road. Although I was a bit confused, I was thrilled that Florida offered this taste of adventure. Alan, the owner of the Inlet Explorer tour, his “mate”, Tasha, the Siberian husky, and a 10-foot female manatee greeted us warmly. Joel Meyer, the State Park Marina Manager and his assistant Rich were prepared to take our small group of 4 out on the pontoon boat headed to Pelican Island.

Joel began our education by explaining how the Inlet was formed and providing descriptions of the ecological characteristics of the place. The inlet and its islands were essentially man made from the digging of an intercoastal waterway from New Jersey to Miami. There are 6 inlets along the coast near Sebastian. The water in the lagoon is defined as “brackish”, a mixture of salt water from the ocean and the fresh water from the inland lakes. These inlets help to clean the Indian River Lagoon. Two tides per day help to cleanse the water that comes in from the lakes to the west of the lagoon. Over 4,000 plant and animal species thrive in the Lagoon. Underwater, the Johnson Sea Grass, an endangered species, sways back and forth through the mucky water. The sea grass plays a vital role amidst the lagoon. It serves as refuge for the smaller creatures living there. Unfortunately, the sea grass reproduces slowly, so protection of the grass is a priority.

There are 20 spoil (man made) islands present in the lagoon. Pelican Island, however, is completely natural and may explain why so many bird species thrive there. Once we reached the end of the channel we sped up to reach the elusive island. On our way we passed several surprising sites, including people exploring sand bars on foot, advertising billboards planted in the middle of the river, Australian pine trees, and a treasure boat docked along the west side of the river. Mel Fisher, who discovered the Spanish galleon shipwreck off the coast of Sebastian, designed the treasure boat. The Mel Fisher Treasure Museum is located nearby. The facility displays gold, jewelry and other artifacts from the numerous shipwrecks from 1750, discovered off the coast.

diving brown pelican, white ibis, mullet, dolphins, brown pelicans, mangroves, wood storks, egrets, swamp, wetland, heron, roseate spoonbill, coconut point, campground, swimming, kayak, canoe, pontoon boat, outdoors.Cruising right along, a White Ibis flies overhead, mullet jump out of the water, with spunk, and Joel spots a large school of dolphins and proclaims that there are up to 500 dolphins in the Indian River Lagoon.

After much anticipation, we arrived at Pelican Island. We stopped the boat away from the island in order to keep from disturbing the hundreds of nesting birds. The island itself is down to 3-acres (from 7-8) of land along the east side of the Indian River, between Sebastian and Wabasso, and is a famed bird rookery. Today, the Wildlife Refuge, most of which is leased by the State of Florida, encompasses 4,359 acres of mangrove islands and bottom land, and 5,400 acres of species habitat.

In May, brown pelicans nest on the island, while white pelicans fly north. Indeed, we witnessed large numbers of brown pelicans nesting. There were some residual white pelicans hanging around near the water. The white pelicans are huge, and somewhat swan-like. The brown pelicans share the island with a large group of wood storks, along with some egrets, both nesting in mangroves nearby.

The wood storks are eye-catching. They are tall birds that grow from 34” to 47”. They are the only native stork in Florida and are rarely seen north of the Carolinas. They sometimes soar very high in the air. They are, unfortunately, declining due to the disappearance of their habitats, swamps and wetlands.

The black, slick looking double crested cormorant is abundant at Pelican Island. They are common along the coast in the summer. In the winter they are found mainly south of New England. They migrate along the coast of the US.

From what I could tell, we had views of quite a few egrets. For the untrained eye, it is hard to tell the difference between herons and egrets. The egrets have long legs and wade in shallow water. They usually stand motionless waiting to spear fish. They are also sometimes mistaken for cranes due to their height. You can be sure it’s an egret if their long neck loops back in flight. The Great White Heron makes the refuge home. At 50” long the majestic bird is found in Florida only. It is larger than the various species of egrets, which measures 38”. It has a yellow bill like the egret, but is differentiated by its black legs.

roseate spoonbillThe highlight of the Island visit was a view of a roseate spoonbill. The bird, with its pink wings and spoon-like bill, was exploring the shoreline of the Island, strutting in and out of the mangrove roots teasing us as we hoped for a longer glimpse.
Along the river on the way back to the marina we learn that there is a clam farm nearby from which farmers supply _ of Florida and 1/3 of the clams in the US. Clams are sold once they reach 1” in diameter.

Coconut Point, at the tip of Sebastian Inlet State Park, contains a fenced in area for nesting terns. The Point also offers a fantastic place for kayaking. The campground at the park is $17 per day and has over 100 campsites. Camping in winter most certainly would require a reservation. There is an entrance fee for the park also. The park has a reservation office and a fishing museum.

One of the most fulfilling characteristics of the area is the effort that was made to protect the royal terns from getting clobbered by cars. Tall pipes jut up from the railing of the Sebastian Inlet bridge. The terns see these pipes and immediately fly away from the bridge, thus being saved from one more modern hazard.

The cove north of the Sebastian Inlet, close to the bridge, offers a great swimming hole for all. The area is also attractive to shallow water divers. The depth of the channel reaches up to 25 feet. Beware of the speedboats traveling through the channel.

As we head back to the marina we notice dead pines along the shoreline. Joel says these trees are indicative of the US Fish and Wildlife’s resource management effort to control the exotic plants of the area, such as these Australian Pines. These pines trees, which were brought over years ago to protect orange groves, are now hazardous to the essential native mangroves. Left to grow, the trees have, and will continue to, grow out of control.

We passed a least tern resting on a speed post. The tern is tiny at just 9” with a yellow bill. A natural oyster bar appears near the dock, and mama manatee is still there, enjoying the warm and safe waters.

Pelican Island Wildlife Refuge offers several ways for travelers to visit. You can explore the island by foot on any one of the several trails in the refuge. You can kayak, canoe, or hop aboard a pontoon boat tour.

I was inspired by what I saw there. It can happen. We humans can truly assist in the survival of the earth’s precious wildlife. It seems it only takes the effort of a few select individuals. Those people could just be Alan, Joel, Rich, Captain Ned, and even Tasha. This isn’t merely the crew of the Inlet Explorer. They are working magic, creating awareness of our wildlife, helping to preserve and protect our natural resources. Flying home to Colorado, I remember the crew, and recognize the Sebastian area as a tribute to the outdoors.

Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge
Hours 7:30 am – Sunset daily
Monday – Sunday

Inlet Explorer
Alan and Nancy French
Phone: 800.952.1126
Reservations Requested

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