By Jessica Tuggle
SEBASTIAN -- Humans are definitely a large percentage of the guests to visit Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Sebastian, but the kind of visitors that fly in on their own set of wings are also joyfully received.
Last week, a human visitor from Vermont spotted a rare winged visitor from the Caribbean checking out the swimming holes at the nation's first and oldest wildlife refuge, and birders from around the state and country are coming out to the refuge to catch a glimpse, said refuge staff.
The white-cheeked pintail, also known as a Bahama pintail, is a species of dabbling duck rarely found this far north, and refuge visitor Donald H. Miller spotted the duck swimming and feeding with other ducks in the man-made pond located near the Centennial Trail, said Kevin Lowry, refuge ranger.
The duck is primarily found in the Caribbean, South America and the Galapagos Islands, so to see it this far north is quite surprising and exciting, drawing people from far distances to see it for themselves, Mr. Lowry said.
"A large number of wildlife can be spotted on the refuge year round, including various birds and waterfowl, bobcats, raccoons and other Florida creatures," he said.
Twice a month from November to March, Mr. Lowry offers a free wildlife tour to guests that register ahead of time. The size of the tour group is limited because the tour is given on the nature trails of the refuge, and the group is transported to various locations on the refuge by riding in two "e-trams," or electric trolleys similar to golf carts.
"One of the bonuses of the e-trams is that they are quiet and less of a disturbance to wildlife, making them perfect to carry passengers who still want to spy a bird on the wing, or a creature in its natural habitat," Mr. Lowry said.
The tours are booked solid through March, but Mr. Lowry hopes to open up more dates next fall.
Gregory and Sandi Marino signed up for the Jan. 30 tour before Christmas last year and say the tour was well worth the wait.
Early in the morning, before the sunshine was at its maximum strength, the tour group loaded onto the e-tram and saw a couple of the walking trails on the refuge, called Joe Michael and Centennial, and viewed Pelican Island proper from an observation tower.
The boardwalk leading up to the observation tower was quite impressive, Mr. and Mrs. Marino said.
The entire length of the boardwalk, which gradually inclines to 18 feet, is inscribed with the names and dates of other national wildlife refuges in the U.S. and its territories, providing a fascinating read on the way up, they said.
The Marinos liked their experience so much they are looking into volunteering at the refuge, something that is desperately needed, Mr. Lowry said.
"Unlike the national parks system, of which Sebastian Inlet State Park is one, the national wildlife refuges staffing budget doesn't allow for a ranger to be onsite all the time to handle guest relations," he said. "Volunteers trained by the ranger can do so much to enhance the experience of guests coming to the refuge, showing them the best spots to find certain animals, describing the landscape or even talking about the creation and history of the refuge."
Pelican Island, originally a 5.2 acre island in the Indian River Lagoon, was set apart for wildlife in 1903 after local resident Paul Kroegel's brave defense of the nesting birds on the island caught the ear of then-President Teddy Roosevelt.
The birds were being shot and their feathers were being sold to make fashionable hats for women in both Europe and the U.S.
"At one point, the feathers were being sold on the black market for three times their weight in gold," Mr. Lowry said.
Mr. Kroegel would defend the island against ships of men seeking the feathers with his shotgun, protecting the lives of the animals on land that didn't even belong to him, Mr. Lowry shared on the tour.
After the island was made a refuge, Mr. Kroegel was made the first refuge manager. And he was paid by the Audubon Society $1 each month to continue protecting the island, risking his life every day against the "feather hunters."
People interested in volunteering are always welcome to contact Mr. Lowry at (772) 581-5557, ext. 5.
For the most up-to-date information on the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, visit www.facebook.com/PelicanIslandNWR?fref=ts.