When I’m planning a trip somewhere new and looking for parks and other natural places to explore, two of my favorite words to see are “Wildlife Drive”. Many parks, especially those with wetlands, design these drives to provide visitors with an easy way to see a lot of nature that might not otherwise be accessible to them. The wildlife is always the top priority when designing these drives – speed limits are very low, loud vehicles like ATVs are often prohibited, and most have a entrance fee to discourage “joyriders” who would otherwise spoil the peace.
On our recent trip to Kennedy Space Center and the surrounding Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge, we enjoyed the Black Point Wildlife Drive during several days of the trip. The seven-mile road winds along the embankments of saltwater marsh and open wetlands, where birding in the winter is simply spectacular. Waterfowl winters here in large numbers, and we spotted plenty of birds new to our “life list”, like Northern Pintails, Wigeons, and Blue-Winged Teals. We saw huge flocks of American Robins, Bald Eagles in flight and on the nest, and Belted Kingfishers posing in the flatlands. American Coots numbered in the thousands, and there seemed to be just about as many Great Southern White butterflies. This rich palette of wildlife was all around us – and we saw it all from in or near our car, with birding guides, binoculars, and camera within reach.
Another “drive-thru birding spot” we enjoyed was the nearby Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands at Viera, an artificial wetland created to help clean water from the nearby community of Viera. The embankments along the various drainage ponds are open to vehicles, allowing close-up views of Glossy Ibis, nesting Great Blue Herons, and possible Crested Caracaras (we didn’t see any, but they’re known to hang out there). Some embankments are closed to cars, but open to walkers and bikers, so there’s a little something for everyone.
We first discovered drive-thru birding many years ago on our first trip to the J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island near Fort Myers, FL. We loved the ability to see so much wildlife in a short period of time, and to do it from our car where we could keep myriad guidebooks, bug spray, hats, and more close at hand. Since then, we seek out wildlife drives every chance we get.
Though some might wonder about car noise and disruption to wildlife, the fact is that most visitors to these places are in awe, and tend to idle along in their cars, making almost no noise at all. These wildlife drives offer great opportunities for young kids, seniors, or folks with mobility issues to experience nature easily. Nearly all these drives include places to park your car and take a hike or two, so more active birders can get out and stretch their legs. They usually are closed off at night, to protect the wildlife, and some even close a day or two each week to make sure the wildlife gets some time off too.
I’ve listed three of my favorite wildlife drives in this post. Won’t you drop by the comments below and share your favorites too? We can compile a list to help readers find these hidden gems, whether they’re out of state or right down the road!