Located partly in Levy County, up the coast from Cedar Key, the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge covers 53,000 acres of some exceptional and beautiful wild land. With offshore islands, tidal creeks, salt marshes and forests, it comprises a number of different kinds of habitats, each attracting the creatures that feel most comfortable in that environment.
Lower Suwannee offers a glimpse of what the Florida coast looked like long before railroads and housing tracts were thought of. Although care has been taken to interfere as little as possible with the untamed jungle, it is accessible to members of the public of all ages. For the more adventurous, hunting, fishing and canoeing are also allowed – with permission – within the refuge.
Birdwatching in Lower Suwannee
The refuge is home to an impressive number of bird species, from bald eagles and ospreys to kingfishers and woodpeckers. In fact, the islands and marshes play home to well over 200 different kinds of birds, some of which live there year-round while others visit only during certain seasons. Observation towers and hides are available at various points within the reserve, as are experts specializing in ornithology, ecology and wildlife reserve management.
Most people will equate ornithology with casual birdwatching, but there is actually quite a bit more to it. Birds play an important role in most ecosystems, spreading seeds, controlling insect populations and finally serving as lunch for predators higher up in the food chain.
With its impressive range of both migratory and resident bird species, the lower Suwannee wildlife refuge attracts professional researchers as well as hobbyists. Amateurs with an interest in our feathered friends actually play an important role in understanding the state of and trends in different ecosystems. Even if they don’t realize it, hobbyists logging a sighting of a rare bird, or one outside of its usual region, not only provides the birdwatcher with bragging rights but forms part of an international body of knowledge that’s used to monitor the vitality of different habitats and the progress of endangered species.
Don’t Try this at Home
Certain techniques for the study of bird populations have the potential to cause harm, and their use is generally restricted to trained professionals and certain circumstances.
Over the years, pretty comprehensive bird call libraries have been assembled. When a scientist wants to study a particularly rare bird, or one that tends to hide out in the kind of thick underbrush that characterizes much of the Lower Suwannee, they will sometimes store its mating call on an iPod, hook it up to an external amplifier and hide nearby to see if the bird approaches. Since doing this too often can interfere with the bird’s natural behavior, amateurs aren’t encouraged to do this.
Catch and Release
In order to understand migration patterns and the general health of a population, it’s often desirable to physically catch a bird, take some basic measurements, mark the individual and return it to the wild. In woodlands, the most common way of doing so is to span a mist net between two trees.
A mist net is simply a very delicate, nearly invisible net equipped with “pockets” into which birds trying to fly through it will fall. Various types are available to study different kinds of birds. While being caught in this way isn’t physically harmful to the bird in about 99.5% of cases, quite a bit of training is needed to properly disentangle it afterwards. For this reason, the sale of mist nets is restricted to people who can demonstrate a legitimate need to conduct this kind of research. The resulting license is called a banding permit, referring to the identification bands attached to captured birds’ ankles.
Step into the Great Outdoors
It’s pretty well agreed that spending a little time in nature is the perfect way to shake off stress, provide your children with an absorbing experience and perhaps learn a thing or two about the planet we live on. If you’re living in Levy County, consider driving up to Lower Suwannee instead of seeing a movie next time you have a free day. As long as you remember to pack sunblock and mosquito spray, the trip is guaranteed to be well worth it.