Monday, December 14, 2015

A Tour of Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge

Cedar Key Florida is a place to get away from it all in a laid back out of the way spot on the west central coast of Florida.  You can read, bird watch, go fishing, go kayaking, rent a boat, do a little shopping or check out the local museums.  There is only one beach and it’s small by Florida standards… 

Another option is a tour conducted by one of the local tour boat operators.  There are a few ‘docks’ on the water near the end of Dock Street that advertise tours and fishing trips.  You pick up a brochure at one of these docks and then call to arrange a tour or fishing trip.  Subsequently, those going on the tour assemble here just before your trip begins…
We opted for a tour of Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge.  That satisfied our need for a boat ride, our sense of exploration and our love of nature with the bird watching that would be a key part of the trip.

This was our tour boat…small but with a cover to protect its passengers from the Florida sunshine.  Captain Doug’s Tours and Tidewater Tours and Rentals in the first photo are one and the same.  This is a 27 foot boat but Captain Mike also has a 32 foot boat and an airboat.    

You might have noticed that Captain Mike is operating Captain Doug’s Tours… Mike and Connie now own and operate the tour operation.  Connie is the tour guide.  That’s Captain Mike on the boat in the photo.

The shallow waters around keys tend to dictate the type and size of the boats that ply the area for tourism, clamming or fishing.  This low bridge leading out of the little harbor in the city of Cedar Key is another factor that can’t be ignored…

Tidewater Tours/Captain Doug’s Tours offers several options for visitors to Cedar Key.  Our tour was the Island Tour.  Other trips include a Sunset Tour, Suwannee River Tour, Coastal Marsh Tour and an Airboat Tour/Ride.

This photo shows some of the businesses on the seaward side of Dock Street.  They are just a bit vulnerable to stormy weather and Cedar Key has been inundated on several occasions in relatively recent history.  At their highest point most of the keys in this area are not more than 20 feet above sea level. 

In 1950, Hurricane Easy, a category 3 storm with 125 mph winds, looped around Cedar Key 3 times before finally making landfall, dumping 38 inches of rain and destroying two-thirds of the homes.  Luckily, the storm came ashore at low tide, so the surge was only 5 feet. 

Hurricane Elena followed a similar path in 1985, but did not make landfall. Packing 115-mile-per-hour winds, the storm churned for 2 days in the Gulf, 50 miles to the west, battering the waterfront. All the businesses and restaurants on Dock Street were either damaged or destroyed, and a section of the seawall collapsed.

In the 1800's massive numbers of birds in the south were killed for their plumage, so that ladies might wear the latest hat fashion.  Refuges were established to protect the courting birds during breeding and nesting.   In 1929 Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge was established by President Herbert Hoover for the protection of the 200,000 birds that used the keys for raising their young.  The islands/keys in the Refuge total about 762 acres.

Here we are approaching Atsena Otie Key.  In the 1800's, pioneers settled on some of the keys.  The original village of Cedar Key was located on this key.  Atsena Otie is a native Muscogean word meaning cedar island.  In those early days before highways and bridges, Cedar Key…on this island…was the only port on the Gulf.

Thirteen keys that have been earmarked as protected breeding grounds for colonial birds make up Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge.  These keys, low islands rising just above the sea, are in fact one of the largest nesting areas in north Florida.  The four outermost islands with a combined 371 acres have been designated as Wilderness: Seahorse Key, North Key, Snake Key, and Bird Key (also known as Deadman's Key).

This is the pier at Atsena Otie Key.  Atsena Otie is open for visitors from dawn to dusk.  There is a boardwalk that crosses the marsh.  There is also an information kiosk and restroom facility near an observation deck. 

The key passed from private to public ownership in 1997 when it was sold to the Suwannee River Water Management District.  In turn, that organization entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to have the island managed as part of the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge. 

Remnants of the old village of Cedar Key (more accurately Atsena Otie) can be seen on the main trail. Brick ruins of the Faber Pencil Mill remain on the west end of the island.  The trail travels past a kiln for drying the cedar slats meant for pencils; a windmill remains adjacent to the trail.  The most remarkable sign of civilization is the 19th century cemetery, the final resting place for victims of yellow fever and the hard life of the times.

Birds rule on these islands and they love the pier on Atsena Key! 

While cruising along the shore of Atsena Key, our guide pointed out a group of dolphins that were ‘herding’ fish into the shallows so they could feast on them.  We tried to take a photo but we just weren’t close enough to take a good picture…

From 1818 to the early 1820s this key was used as a trading post, and was important during the First Seminole War.  In 1835 the U.S. Army built a hospital and stockade on the island.  During the Second Seminole War (1835 to 1842) the island served as a military outpost.  It was here on August 14, 1842 that Col. William J. Worth declared the Second Seminole War to be over.

This Cormorant found a perch amidst these Brown Pelicans…

Atsena Otie Key has a long and interesting history.  It preceded Cedar Key as a major port in the mid-1800s; it was the west coast terminus for Florida’s first coast to coast cross state railroad; Civil War conflicts were fought here; it was a major source of pencils with a Faber Pencil Mill on the island, and; hurricanes destroyed the town on two different occasions.  In 1950 the last remaining house on the island was destroyed by Hurricane Easy.  Learn more at

Many thousands of years ago these islands in these shallow waters were fish camps for the First Peoples/American Indians on the Florida peninsula.  Their middens (heaps of discarded shellfish) built-up the islands, so that vegetation sprang from the rich soil.

A 5-year archaeological survey by the University of Florida has proven that this area was well populated with Archaic and Woodland cultures with the latter being mound builders.  With all the marine life, shorebirds, alligators and manatees, these people didn't have to hunt and gather; they actually lived in the ‘grocery store’.

During our visit, we saw a lot of Pelicans.  We both love to see a 'flight' of these big birds cruising along the shoreline or diving for dinner.  These are Brown Pelicans but from what I've read White Pelicans frequent these shore in significant numbers at specific times of the year.  

Laurie saw these birds in flight and she announced that they were Frigatebirds.  I told her that Frigatebirds were native to South America and they had to be something else.  I was wrong! 

This species of Frigatebird is the ‘Magnificent Frigatebird’ is the largest of the 5 types in the world.  It turns out that this bird is widespread in the tropical Atlantic, breeding colonially in trees in Florida, the Caribbean and also along the Pacific coast of the Americas from Mexico to Ecuador, including the Gal├ípagos Islands.  Frigatebirds never land on water, and always take their food items in flight.  It actually spends days and nights on the wing something it has in common only with the Common Swift.  It has a wingspan of between 7 and 8 feet! 

The shoreline of Seahorse Key was loaded with a large variety of shorebirds…

A prominent sandy ridge distinguishes Seahorse Key, recalling the island's past life as a huge sand dune (granted this was hundreds of thousands of years ago). The ridge crests at 52 feet above sea level, making it the highest point on Florida's Gulfcoast. The other keys barely make it to 20 feet above the waves. An upland forest of cabbage palm, red bay, live oak, and laurel oak covers the ridge, with an understory of saw palmetto, yaupon, wild olive, prickly pear, eastern red cedar, and Spanish bayonet. Salt marsh and estuarine waters dotted with mangrove dominate the lower elevations.

Today, 20,000 birds normally use the westernmost finger of Seahorse Key and Snake Key as rookeries.


·       While there is only one small beach on Way Key where today’s city of Cedar Key is located, the beaches on the keys that comprise the Cedar Keys Wildlife Refuge are open to the public except during breeding/nesting season.

·       Yes…there are snakes on Snake Key as well as on several other islands.  There is a healthy population of cottonmouth rattlesnakes in the scrub and woodland away from the beach.

Since 1952, the University of Florida has leased 3 acres of Seahorse Key for their marine research lab; the light station serves as the dorm. A copy of each research project is provided to the Refuge for possible use in management decisions. 

When the Refuge hosts special events, the historic light station (top right of photo) on Seahorse Key is accessible.  However from March 1 through June 30, Seahorse Key, its beaches as well as a 100 yard perimeter around the island are closed to all public entry when the rookery is fully occupied. 

The lighthouse on Seahorse Key was completed and lit in 1854.  At the beginning of the American Civil War Confederate sympathizers extinguished the light.  Federal troops occupied Seahorse Key in 1862, and used it as a prison for the duration of the war. The lighthouse was put back into service after the war ended.  The lighthouse building was tripled in size in 1905 when a U.S. Navy wireless station was established there.  The light was taken out of commission in 1915.  It is the oldest existing lighthouse on the west coast of Florida.

This Osprey kept a sharp eye on us as we cruised by him/her along the shore of Seahorse Key.

Egrets, night herons, brown pelicans, white ibis, cormorants, and in the past few years, reddish egrets and roseate spoonbills have made themselves at home in the Seahorse Key rookery.  Parent birds must fly 30 plus miles up the Suwannee River or to alternative freshwater sources to gather food for their young that is not salty.  Otherwise the young birds would become dehydrated.
However in late April of this year the rookeries on Seahorse Key were suddenly abandoned!   Refuge staff continues to look into the causes behind the island’s sudden abandonment.  While many birds that previously nested on Seahorse Key have been found on surrounding islands, at least 7,000 white ibises remain unaccounted for – a species that has spent at least the last 20 summers on Seahorse Key.  To learn more about this mystery, go to

To learn more about the birds that live in and around Cedar Key as well as those that migrate through the area and/or nest in the keys, just go to

Birds, birds and more birds!  Many of our fellow tour boat passengers were there just to see and photograph the birds.  Here is a partial list of birds that one might see when visiting the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge.

Sanderlings, Black-bellied plovers, Semi-palmated Plovers, Western and Least Sandpipers, Marbled Godwit, Whimbrels, Yellow Legs, Red Knots, Snowy Plovers, Piping Plovers, Ruddy Turnstones, Black Necked Stilts, Oystercatchers, Wilsons Plovers, Willets, Roseate Spoonbills, Dunlin, Avocets, Long Billed Curlew, Piping Plovers, Snowy Plovers, Spotted Sandpipers, Forester Terns, Royal Terns, Sandwich Terns, Caspian Terns, Black Skimmers, White Pelicans, Common Loons, Horned Grebes, Red-breasted Mergansers, Buffleheads, Scaup Ducks, Bald Eagles, Osprey, Northern Harrier, Peregrine Falcons, Merlin, Wood Storks, White Ibis, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Yellow and Black Crowned Night Herons,  Tri-colored Herons, Little Blue Herons, Great Blue Herons, Cormorants, Brown Pelicans and of course, Frigatebirds.  This is a birders paradise!

As we slowly and steadily made the return trip to the dock in Cedar Key, this charter fishing boat blew by us…and I envied the speed.  Next time we return to Cedar Key, it will be time to go fishing!

We really enjoyed our tour with Captain Mike and Connie.  We learned a bit of history, picked up a bit of knowledge about sea birds and got a better understanding of the Cedar Keys area.  Tidewater Tours/Captain Doug’s Tours is based at 302 Dock Street in Cedar Key Florida.  Phone: 352-543-9523.  Website:

Just click on any of the photos to enlarge them…

Thanks for stopping by for my long and wordy tour of the Cedar Keys Wildlife Refuge!

Take Care, Big Daddy Dave

1 comment:

  1. Interesting history, Dave! Horrible with the birds' feathers for women's hats and with the Ibises disappearance --- a little surprising that airplane noise isn't a factor, hope they figure it out.

    This sounds like a great refuge for the birds but that's quite a hike for gathering food for their young, obviously just a little cruise for them. Pelicans are fascinating to watch and that Osprey has "eagle eyes" for sure. Kudos to Laurie! Thanks for the geography/history lesson, I've never been that far North on the Gulf side and enjoyed reading about it! Thanks again!