Pelican Island isn’t just a National Wildlife Refuge, it’s the National Wildlife Refuge that started the whole concept going, back in 1903. Even further back, in 1858, the small island in the Indian River Lagoon – offshore from where the refuge access is today – was documented as a brown pelican breeding ground.
On March 14, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt signed an order to designate Pelican Island as the first Federal bird reservation, the first time ever the government set aside land for wildlife. The National Wildlife Refuge system evolved out of this act, as did our National Parks and National Forests. On March 14, 2003, the Centennial Trail was the centerpiece of a nationwide celebration of the National Wildlife Refuge system. The ¾ mile Centennial Trail is the shortest and easiest of the three trails at the refuge, and it’s also wheelchair accessible – paved or boardwalk its entire length.
Two other trails within the refuge are available for walking around the mangrove-lined impoundments – Bird’s Impoundment Trail and Pete’s Impoundment Trail. Each is a 2.5 mile loop with little shade but plenty of birding opportunities.
Location: Orchid Island
Length: 0.8 mile
Lat-Long: 27.803342, -80.429350
Fees / Permits: free
Bug factor: moderate
Restroom: Yes, at another trailhead
From the junction of CR 510 (east of Sebastian) and A1A, follow A1A north 3.5 miles to park sign on left; turn left onto “Jungle Trail” and follow it 0.6 mile past the Jungle Trail parking area to the main entrance on the right. The paved Centennial Trail starts at the handicapped parking area.
The whole reason to take this little hike, of course, is for the birds. An extensive history is presented on the refuge website, but to sum it up, a local homesteader, Paul Kroegel, made it his mission to stand guard over the nesting pelicans back in the late 1880s. When it was discovered that the island was the last breeding ground for brown pelicans on the East Coast of Florida, the Florida Audubon Society hired Krogel to do what he was already doing—protecting the birds from hunters. There were no laws against hunting them. Based on Audubon’s findings, President Theodore Roosevelt signed an order to designate Pelican Island as the first Federal bird reservation, the first time the government set aside land for wildlife. Krogel became its first manager.
You’ll see your share of birds on this short walk. Our first sighting started with the impoundment adjacent to the welcome and historical kiosk. A black skimmer was showing off its skimming behavior, swooping low to the water and shoveling it up with his bill. It was worth some time on a trailside bench to watch his technique. The trail winds away from the impoundment and along the edge of a wetland you’d expect to see along the Indian River Lagoon, with cabbage palms and tall grasses.
As the paved path rounds a bend past a kiosk on the history of the National Wildlife Refuge system, it reaches the Centennial Boardwalk. Look underfoot as you head up this long, long ramp. The names and dates founded of each of the National Wildlife Refuges are listed, although some have faded in the sun or through the wear of foot traffic. Looking down and out, you’ll see a mangrove lined canal popular with herons and egrets. Alligators lie in wait just beneath the surface along the brackish mud flats. A cormorant might be drying its wings while perched on a mangrove.
At the end of the boardwalk is a covered observation deck with two free telescopes for viewing Pelican Island. It doesn’t look like much, just one of the hundreds of mangrove-covered islands in the Indian River Lagoon, but it’s a nesting area for brown pelicans. And at the time that was discovered, back in 1903, there weren’t a lot of brown pelicans left. Use your own binoculars or the telescope to sweep over Pelican Island and its adjacent islands. You’ll see all sorts of avian life, from ospreys to green herons to the pelicans themselves doing pelican dives into the shallows in search of a meal. Spend a little time here, enjoying the view, the breeze, and the bird life. And be thankful that more than a century ago, our forefathers had the foresight to start saving habitat for species that were disappearing. I hope we continue to walk in their footsteps.