Top Ten Warm-Weather Winter Wildlife Refuges - Page 2

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A manatee in Florida's Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge
A manatee in Florida's Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge  (Paul Nicklen/National Geographic/Getty)

5. Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge, South Carolina
Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge, located off the coast of South Carolina near Hilton Head, was a 19th-century plantation and a mid-20th-century private game preserve. Today, the scenic salt marsh and tidal creek refuge provides habitat for creatures including alligators, bald eagles, and endangered wood storks.

The Low Country refuge earns raves as a tranquil destination for extended walking and bicycling, with more than 14 miles of hiking and biking trails. Wildlife-viewing is popular year-round. In fall, visitors can see migrating flocks of shorebirds foraging on tidal mudflats or in the high grass of the salt marsh. On milder sunny days in fall and winter, you can also see alligators basking on the banks of ponds. Fox squirrels and white-tailed deer may be encountered at any time of the year.

The refuge also offers other recreational opportunities from kayaking tidal marshes to saltwater fishing from boats in the waters of Skull and Mackay Creek that surround the refuge. And the many cultural attractions of Savannah and Charleston close by makes it a place to spent not just a few hours or days—but at least a week.

4. Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge, California
It's a salt marsh, a wetland, a coastal lagoon. Whatever you call it, Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge in the southwesternmost corner of the contiguous United States is a major bird sanctuary. It's also one of California's last fragments of coastal estuaries and is one of 27 National Estuarine Research Reserves in the country, managed jointly by the Service, California State Parks and the U.S. Navy. This relationship maintains critical habitat for many migrating shorebirds and waterfowl along the Pacific Flyway. Hundreds of species of birds, including the recently delisted California brown pelican, the endangered California least tern, and the endemic light-footed clapper rail can be found on the refuge and adjacent lands.

The visitor-friendly refuge offers four miles of trails filled with native plant life and a visitor center (open Wednesday through Sunday, from 10 A.M. to 5 P.M.). Horse-riders and hikers can follow trails in the Tijuana River Valley that take you almost within a stone's throw of the bull ring in Tijuana, Mexico, and among coastal riparian habitats.

Sweetwater Marsh, part of neighboring San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge, is also worth a visit. Its family-friendly Chula Vista Nature Center offers live exhibits of birds, sea-turtles and fish.

3. Key West National Wildlife Refuge, Florida
Rent one a boat if you don't already own one. You'll need it to get to Key West National Wildlife Refuge, one of the country's first wildlife refuges, established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds and other wildlife. The islands were also designated wilderness in 1972. The waters around the refuge islands and flats contain coral reef and seagrass habitats and are prime locations for fishing, snorkeling, diving, and wildlife viewing. People travel from all over the world to visit this beautiful and fragile subtropical ecosystem.

Because refuge beaches are important nesting areas for green, hawksbill, and loggerhead sea turtles, public access to some islands (for example, Woman Key and Boca Grande Key) is limited. But other mangrove-lined beaches, likes those at the Marquesas Keys, are open for daylight uses such as wildlife viewing and photography. There's no camping, and jet skis are prohibited throughout the refuge.

The refuge is administered by National Key Deer Refuge, headquartered on Big Pine Key.

2. Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, Hawaii
You want another reason to go to Hawaii? Here's one: Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, on the island of Kauai, is one of the best places to view wildlife in the main Hawaiian islands. The picturesque refuge, whose steep cliffs plunge dramatically to the ocean, is home to one of Hawai'i's largest populations of nesting seabirds.

The refuge offers a once-in-a-lifetime chance to view seabirds such as the mōlī (Laysan albatrosses), 'a (red-footed boobies), 'ua'u kani (wedge-tailed shearwaters), and koa'e 'ula (red-tailed tropicbirds). Visitors can see seabirds courting, nest building, incubating their eggs, or raising their young. Lucky visitors may catch a glimpse of the endangered nēnē, the state bird also known as the Hawaiian goose.

Kilauea Point also offers unsurpassed Pacific Ocean views from a spectacular 180-foot ocean bluff. From this vantage point, visitors have a chance to view 'īlio-holo-i-ka-uaua (Hawaiian monk seals), honu (green sea turtles) and, in the winter, koholā (humpback whales). Observation scopes and binoculars are available to see them up close and personal.

Staff and volunteers have restored native Hawaiian coastal plants such as naupaka, 'ilima, hala, āhea'hea, and 'akoko. An endangered plant restoration program is giving species such as the rare ālula a chance to survive. Stroll through the visitor center to learn more about Hawaii's unique and diverse ecosystems.

The wildlife refuge is also home to the historic Kīlauea Point Lighthouse. Built in 1913 as a navigational aid for commercial shipping between Hawaii and Asia, the lighthouse guided ships and boats safely along Kauai's rugged north shore for 62 years. In 1976, the Coast Guard deactivated the cliffside lighthouse and replaced it with an automatic beacon. In 1979, the lighthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

For more information on Kīlauea Point Refuge, visit http://www.fws.gov/kilaueapoint or call (808) 828-1413.

1. Vieques National Wildlife Refuge, Puerto Rico
Never mind the name: Puerto Mosquito is attracting another kind of buzz as one of the most spectacular of the world's few surviving bioluminescent bays. The naturally bioluminescent bay is enclosed by protected land that includes the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge, established in 2001 on a former U.S. Navy base eight miles off the east coast of Puerto Rico. Some have likened swimming in the bay to floating through stardust: the bioluminescence is caused by microscopic dinoflagellates, single-celled half-plant, half-animal organisms that propel themselves through the water with whip-like flagella. If that natural phenomenon doesn't grab you, sample the island's mangrove lagoons and nine secluded and undeveloped white beaches.

"Vieques Wildlife Refuge is absolutely the last ecological, historical, and archaeological treasure in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the Eastern Caribbean," says Oscar Diaz, former manager of the Vieques Refuge.

That's not what you might expect of an island that once included a World War II bombing range. But, in fact, the Navy's 60-year presence helped protect the site from the waves of commercial development that have strained the fragile ecosystems of many tropical islands. Today, Vieques Refuge is the largest national wildlife refuge in the Caribbean and an eco-tourist destination. The wildlife refuge is Puerto Rico's primary nesting site for green sea turtles and the territory's largest breeding site for once-endangered brown pelicans. Culebra National Wildlife Refuge on a neighboring island also has pristine beaches, endangered species, and nests of migratory sea birds.

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