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Nature Wildlife 

Pensacola and Perdido Key beaches stretch through miles of unspoiled shoreline. Visitors won’t have to travel far to see the unique wildlife that calls the Gulf Coast home.

Protected Feathered Havens

Rolling dunes covered in swaths of sea oats. It’s a peaceful stroll on an unblemished white quartz beach, when suddenly a shriek pierces the air.

A tiny bird swoops and dives in close, wings tucked, and rolls away for another close pass. Its fighter-jet maneuvers and v-shaped wings built for speed ensure it can’t be mistaken for an angry mini-seagull.

It’s a least tern. And watch where you step, because tiny camouflaged eggs, scraped into the sand, are likely nearby.

These valiant little seabirds defend their nests along Gulf Coast beaches in the spring and summer. Least terns are protected by state law and were once a threatened species, but Northwest Florida’s pristine beaches and thoughtful volunteers and visitors are helping them rebound.

Vast cackling colonies of least terns nest along Santa Rosa Island and Johnson Beach in Gulf Islands National Seashore. Look for them flying in pairs or solo, diving for fish in the nearshore waters. Stay out of the clearly marked nest colonies. Some pairs of terns also will nest away from the colonies, and while the nests are hard to spot, the parents will try to ward unwelcome visitors from straying too close.

Black skimmers can be found mixed in along with these colonies. The large, graceful skimmers will soar inches above the Gulf surface, skimming food from the water with their beaks.

Along the nearshore, plovers and sanderlings dart between receding waves to snare crustaceans. The Wilson’s plover is another bird that is slowly making a comeback.

Squadrons of brown pelicans are a common sight, as are the spindly, graceful great blue herons, which wade the shallows for fish, crab and will even grab the occasional lizard. The little green heron can be found inshore, often resting on boat mooring lines to steal fish that stray too close to the surface.

Osprey and Great Bald Eagles have also rebounded in recent years, and can be found circling and diving after fish in the Gulf, Pensacola Bay, Santa Rosa Sound and other protected waters. They nest in high trees or on platforms created by volunteers and utilities.

Sea Turtle Secret Lairs

One of the most secretive Gulf Coast wildlife visit Pensacola and Perdido Key beaches when few will see them.

Loggerhead, Green and Kemp’s Ridley— and on rare occasions even the massive Leatherback sea turtle — crawl ashore here in the darkness. The female digs a nest near the foot of the sand dunes, then hours later crawls back to sea after laying and burying a nest with up to 130 eggs.

Some 60 to 80 nights later, tiny hatchlings dig their way out and make a mad dash for the Gulf, orienting on the ambient light of the moon over the Gulf.

Artificial lights can disorient adult sea turtles and their hatchlings trying to reach the water, so trained volunteers lend a helping hand.

Volunteers patrol the beaches at dawn to look for signs of a turtle crawl and will mark where the  nest was dug. Volunteers and park service staff monitor nests with stethoscopes — and sometimes assist any disoriented hatchlings when they emerge.

Visitors who spot signs of a turtle crawl — or especially a disoriented turtle — should contact Gulf Islands National Seashore.

Favorite Spots

Gulf Islands National Seashore, which stretches for 9 miles on the western tip of Santa Rosa Island to Fort Pickens and several more miles east of Portofino Island Resort, boasts the largest concentration of nesting sea turtles and shore birds.

Audubon volunteers at Fort Pickens often hold workshops and tours to teach about these shorebirds, and how to help protect them.

Perdido Key, particularly Perdido Key State Park, Big Lagoon State Park and Gulf Islands National Seashore’s Johnson Beach, also harbor rare native wildlife.

Bird enthusiasts can see dozens of species of migrating and native birds along the shore and at special sites along the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail. Rather than one continuous trail, these sites are spread throughout the state as part of a 2,000-mile driving tour.

But you won’t have to go far. Sites include Project Greenshores, a restored shoreline near downtown Pensacola that now is home to visiting and native birds.

The Marcus Point Wetlands Boardwalk is part of the ECUA Bayou Marcus Water Reclamation Facility and spans coastal wetlands near Perdido Bay.

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