ST. MARKS NATIONAL
NORTH FLORIDA PARADISE, ‘RETURN TO IT AGAIN AND AGAIN’
Written by: Ben Knowles
Late one afternoon about 15 years ago I was walking a nature trail. I paused for a moment to observe a pond full of birds. Focused on the pond instead of the ground, I stepped off the path for a better view.
Suddenly, a loud and chilling rattle was below me.
My flight instinct kicked in as I jumped back and watched a huge eastern diamondback rattlesnake coil up to fiercely remind me to watch my step. Once my heart rate came down, I stood back to admire the incredible snake.
This is one of many memorable moments from my visits to the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. One might conclude that almost stepping on a venomous snake would deter me from returning to the refuge, which is due south of Tallahassee, but such encounters have fueled my love of the St.
Marks Refuge and my desire to return to it again and again.
The St. Marks Refuge is just a short drive from our state capital and my favorite place for hiking and wildlife viewing. After 20 years since my first visit and more hikes than I can count, I still get excited by the possibilities of what I might see while at the refuge.
Coastal marshes, pine forests, islands, tidal creeks and estuaries make up this refuge system, with over 83,000 acres for plants to flourish and animals to reside and visit during migration. The refuge consists of units in Taylor, Jefferson and Wakulla counties, but the 17,000-acre unit in St. Marks is where I hike.
An 11-mile paved road makes it easy for visitors to drive through the refuge and down to the historic St. Marks Lighthouse.
Different habitats and lots of flora and fauna and
wildlife can be seen and there are many spots to
enjoy beautiful sunrises and sunsets.
Different habitats and lots of flora and fauna can
be seen throughout the drive. There are many
spots to enjoy beautiful sunrises and sunsets.
For those who wish for deeper exploration,
there are 75 miles of marked refuge trails.
Dolphins feeding on schools of mullet,
migratory monarch butterflies resting on
bushes, white-tailed bucks jumping through
palmetto fans and a bobcat walking down
a grassy road, these are just a few of the
memorable scenes I have been privileged to
observe while hiking the refuge trails.
This past April the refuge provided a unique
memorable moment. I went early in the morning
before an afternoon appointment in Tallahassee.
I set an alarm on my phone for when I needed to
leave to make my appointment. I walked around
all morning with my camera, but it felt like an
average trip of wildlife sightings and photo-ops.
Before my time was up, I made one last stop by
the twin bridges on the main road.
Walking past a bridge, something unusual
caught my eye. An odd-looking end of a broken
tree limb was my first thought, but after looking
closer I realized it was a well-camouflaged
chuck-will’s-widow perched on a broken tree
limb. The bird was sleeping and slightly opened
its eyes as I clicked my camera button. Shortly, my
phone alarm dinged and the bird flew away. It was
an amazing moment to end my refuge visit.
Growing up in Taylor County, most people
referred to chuck-will’s-widows as whip-poorwills
when they were heard. I was an adult when I
learned the song I heard since childhood was from
a chuck-will’s-widow and not a whip-poor-will.
This nocturnal bird is typically heard more than
seen. The few times I had spotted one was a quick
glance in headlights on a road. A visit to St. Marks
gave me a rare opportunity to see and photograph
this bird in the daytime.
If you are ever anywhere near St. Marks, I encourage
you to visit the refuge and make your own memorable
refuge moments. A single drive through the refuge will
leave a lasting impression.
Just watch your step if you decide to walk a trail.
Ben Knowles is an outdoor enthusiast living in
north Florida with his wife and two children.
Find his Facebook page “Ben Outside” to enjoy
photos, stories and videos of his outdoor adventures
throughout Florida. FCM