Florida's Big Bend Wildlife Refuges
Forest management and prescribed fires keep this small staff busy, but accommodating visitors is a high priority, too. Lower Suwannee NWR is located on the Big Bend of the Gulf coast of Florida where visitors have a grand opportunity to see one of the largest undeveloped river delta-estuarine systems in the United States.
The refuge contains the mouth and over 20 miles of the 325 mile long river whose name was made famous by Stephen Foster in the familiar song Old Folks at Home and later by entertainer and singer Al Jolson in his popular song "Swanee." Winding its way south through northern Florida, the Suwannee River rises in southeast Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp and empties into the Gulf of Mexico at the refuge.
Established in 1979, the 52,257 acre refuge is almost all wetland and includes 26 miles of Gulf Coast. The salt marshes and tidal flats at the river's mouth are a veritable paradise for shorebirds and fish. Wetland areas along the river and its tributary streams contain picturesque cypress trees with their characteristic"knees" that bulge from their trunks at water line; places where nesting wood ducks, black bear, and alligators thrive. Upland pine forests in the refuge that were timbered in earlier days and planted with commercially desired slash pine are being thinned out or reforested with native long leaf pine, habitat that offers protective cover to wild turkeys and other animals.
Over 250 bird species have been recorded on the refuge and 90 species are known to nest there. Ospreys, swallow-tailed kites, bald eagles, and white ibis, are among the nesters. Herons, egrets,anhingas, and double-crested cormorants are common year round. Fortunate observers may even see less common limpkins, wood storks, and Florida scrub jays.
West Indian manatees, present in the warm water between late spring and early winter, use the lower river and secluded tidal creeks for calving and feeding. Precise counts of the endangered sea mammal are difficult, however, because of multitude creeks and the dark colored water. Freshwater fish that use the river and tributaries include largemouth bass, Suwannee bass, bluegill, and channel catfish, accounting for the large number of persons who visit the refuge to fish. The threatened Gulf sturgeon swims the river in the spring to spawn and threatened loggerhead and endangered ridely sea turtles feed in the refuge marshes along the Gulf coast.
There are several ways to explore this pristine riverine system. A fully accessible boardwalk and fishing pier were opened in 1997 at the very popular Shell Mound Unit of the refuge on the Gulf Shore, supplementing 2 existing walking trails and a boat ramp. Shell Mound is attractive to both birders and other nature observers as well as anglers who are drawn by the saltwater fishing opportunities either from the bank or from small boats launched from the available ramp. The Unit was named for a phenomenal 28 foot high mound of shells created over thousands of years by prehistoric inhabitants. It can be easily seen from one of the walking trails.
In 1998, the refuge opened a new stretch of road along an old logging tram that passes through hardwood swamps and coastal wetlands. The Dixie Mainline Road is a 9 mile road with upland pine habitat as its anchor points before dipping through the California Swamp and crossing Sanders Creek, Johnson Creek and Shried Creeks via fine new bridges. An interpretive guide is in development. This road is a favorite for cyclists as well as autos. Another 40 miles of refuge roads are open to visitors for observation and access to the dozen ponds on the refuge open for fishing or observation. Many more miles of old logging roads are open to foot and bicycle traffic.
Also new in 1998 is a fully accessible boardwalk/pier overlooking Salt Creek Point. This pier is located in Dixie County and is accessed from the Suwannee side of the Dixie Mainline Trail. At Fishbone Creek, a newly constructed observation deck affords spectacular views of saltwater marsh and coastal islands. There is also a small boat launch and room for bank fishing.
But perhaps the most memorable site on the refuge is the 1 mile River Trail that provides closeup views of the broad, slow moving Suwannee River and the adjacent hardwood swamps. The trail and boardwalk provide remarkable views of one of the most pristine settings refuge visitors will see. In the Lower Reaches of the Suwannee, an interpretive canoe trail has been developed with several routes possible. This is an excellent way to explore the backcountry of the refuge.
Hunting for small game, turkey, deer, feral hogs, and ducks and coots is allowed with a refuge permit during state seasons. Refuge hunting brochures make clear that while hunting can be a recreational activity, it is used on the refuge as a management technique to control wildlife populations. Most of the refuge is open to hunters, but there are several areas that remain closed to hunters(Shell Mound, The River Trail).
Visitors can be assured that the wildlife rich delta of this beautiful river has the permanent protection afforded by the National Wildlife Refuge system.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication