Florida is home to many wild creatures, from alligators to bears, panthers, otters, sea turtles and manatees. On Sept. 4, take time to appreciate these Sunshine State species in honor of National Wildlife Day — a holiday that focuses on raising awareness about endangered animals as well as preservation and conservation efforts worldwide.
For those looking to celebrate, here are few recommendations of places to embark on a wildlife adventure within a two-hour drive of Orlando.
Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge
This Melbourne beach refuge was founded in 1991 and named after the late Dr. Archie Carr Jr. in honor of his contributions to sea turtle conservation.
It stretches across 20.5 miles of land and protects the most significant nesting area for endangered green sea turtles and vulnerable loggerhead sea turtles in North America, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services website. Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge is also a minor nesting area for vulnerable leatherback sea turtles.
In addition to potential sea turtle sightings, guests can also find more than 140 species of birds, more than 250 species of fish, southern beach mice, gopher tortoises, ghost crabs, oysters, clams, seaslugs, shrimp, quid, jellyfish, crocodilians and more.
If you go: Open sunrise to sunset at 3315 S. U.S. Highway A1A in Melbourne Beach (visitor center open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. at 8385 S. U.S. Highway A1A in Melbourne Beach); admission is free; 321-723-3556; fws.gov/refuge/Archie_Carr
Back to Nature Wildlife Refuge & Education Center
While Back to Nature isn’t open on National Wildlife Day, visitors can still celebrate a day late at this nonprofit refuge that rescues, raises, rehabilitates and releases injured or orphaned Florida native species and educates the public about local wildlife and ecosystem preservation.
Explore the Wildlife Walk to learn more about the exotic and non-releasable native species that call the rehabilitation center home. See more than 30 different species, including bobcats, tortoises, lemurs, iguanas, emus, owls, goats and raccoons.
If you go: Open 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 10525 Clapp Simms Duda Road in Orlando; admission is a $5 donation per person (free for ages 3 and younger); 407-568-5138; btnwildlife.org
Blue Spring State Park
A hotspot for wintering manatees, Blue Spring State Park draws many tourists and locals hoping to spot a sea cow. Pro tip: Arrive early if you want guaranteed entry, as the park often reaches capacity, which is currently reduced amid the coronavirus pandemic.
In addition to manatees, the park’s visitors can see fish, turtles, wading birds, ospreys, eagles, Florida scrub-jays, kingfishers and more by moving along the spring run or 4.5-mile Pine Island Trail.
If you go: Open 8 a.m. until sundown daily at 2100 W. French Ave. in Orange City; admission is $6 per vehicle; 386-775-3663; floridastateparks.org
Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
Navigate through elevated boardwalks and paved trails while viewing captive wildlife that are unable to survive in the wild for various reasons.
Ellie Schiller Homosassa Spring Wildlife State Park cares for about 300 animals, including flamingoes, whooping cranes, Florida panthers, black bears, foxes, red wolves, alligators, the oldest hippo in captivity and manatees. Plus, daily programs offer educational opportunities for visitors to learn more about the park’s residents. Note: Only the above-deck portion of the Fish Bowl Underwater Observatory is currently open.
If you go: Open 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily at 4150 S. Suncoast Blvd. in Homosassa; admission is $13 for ages 13 and older, $5 for ages 6-12 and free for children ages 5 and younger; 352-628-5343; floridastateparks.org
Lake Apopka North Shore
Bird enthusiasts should check out Lake Apopka North Shore, one of the best birding destinations in Florida — 369 different species, from great blue herons to bald eagles, have been seen on the property. This 20,000-acre destination also offers the chance to see armadillos, bobcats, bears, coyotes, otters, raccoons and alligators.
Guests can stretch their legs while searching for wildlife along the Lake Apopka Loop Trail and two blazed hiking trails or they can remain in their cars while enjoying the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive.
As you move along the 11-mile course, listen to the self-guided audio tour, which provides an overview of the bird and alligator populations, history of the area, updates on restoration projects that will enhance the wildlife habitat and more. Find the tour, plus a map and additional information, at sjrwmd.com.
For those looking to capture animals on camera, the Sentinel recently interviewed veteran photojournalist Red Huber for tips for photographing wildlife. He recommends going early or waiting until close to sunset, keeping a respectful distance, evaluating camera lens options and more.
If you go: Wildlife drive open 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Friday-Sunday and federal holidays (all vehicles must exit by 5 p.m.) at 2850 Lust Road in Apopka; free admission; 386-329-4404; sjrwmd.com/lands/recreation/lake-apopka
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
Established in 1963 to protect migratory birds, the 140,000-acre Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is home to more than 500 species of wildlife.
Visitors can spot bobcats, otters, manatees, deer, alligators and more than 140 species of freshwater and saltwater fish. Inside the refuge, also explore Black Point Wildlife Drive, a 7-mile, one-way tour that allows guests to enjoy wild views from the comfort of their vehicles.
If you go: Refuge is open sunrise to sunset at 1987 Scrub Jay Way, #32782, in Titusville (Black Point is open 8 a.m.-4 p.m. daily); $10 daily fee per vehicle for Black Point Wildlife Drive entry; 321-861-0669; fws.gov/refuge/Merritt_Island
Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge
This Indian River County refuge, which is also designated as a National Historic Landmark and a Wetland of International Importance, was established to protect pelicans, egrets, ibises and other birds in 1903 — when President Theodore Roosevelt created the National Wildlife Refuge System.
At Pelican Island, find more than 140 species of birds (including the refuge’s namesake) as well as over 200 species of fish — including smalltooth sawfish sturgeon, pipefish, goby, tarpon, flounder, ladyfish, mackerel, bluefish, American eel. Other commonly spotted animals include Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, West Indian manatees, bobcats, otters, marsh rabbits and sea turtles. Marine, freshwater and terrestrial invertebrates — such as mangrove crabs, conchs, snails, oysters, land crabs, dragonflies, butterflies and cicadas — also call the refuge home.
If you go: Open 7:30 a.m. to sunset daily at 4055 Wildlife Way in Vero Beach; free admission; 772-581-5557; fws.gov/refuge/pelican_island
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