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Port of Call Pelican Island: A Bird’s Eye View

November 7, 2016




Back in the late 19th century a four acre spit of land was a thriving bird rookery in the Indian River Lagoon. Beautiful herons, egrets, spoonbills and pelicans were so plentiful it was hard to fathom that these birds might soon disappear.

However, with the introduction of steamboat and railroad transportation the number of American settlers started to swell in coastal central Florida. Many were plume hunters stalking the local birds for their dramatic colorful plumage coveted by the booming millinery trade. The most fashionable ladies of Manhattan society were in a frenzy over feather hats.

Avid outdoorsman and naturalist Frank Chapman (who became a bird curator for the American Museum of Natural History) spearheaded a public outcry against the bird slaughter. He helped convince President Theodore Roosevelt that poachers were wiping out the populations of exotic birds on Pelican Island. It was a horrid business where hunters killed and skinned the mature birds, left orphaned hatchlings to be devoured by lurking crows.  Eliminating two generations at once.

On March 14, 1903, President Roosevelt signed an executive order establishing Pelican Island as America's first National Wildlife Refuge. Never before had the federal government set aside land for wildlife. Roosevelt would go on to establish a network of 55 bird reservations and national game preserves - the forerunner to today's National Wildlife Refuge System.

Sebastian boat builder, Paul Kroegel also took an active interest in protecting the island's birds. He developed his own conservation plan by positioning both his sailboat and his 5'6'' frame between the faster boats of the bird hunters. He wore a big hat and carried a double-barreled 10-gauge shotgun to make his point. After the federal law was enacted Kroegel was named the first refuge warden and  remained in the area protecting the population of birds until his death in 1948.  Today, there is a bronze statue of Kroegel in Riverside Park smoking his pipe as he surveys the tranquil waters and islands of the Indian River Lagoon, one of America's most diverse estuaries.

The Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge entrance is a dusty road off A1A, 15 miles north of Vero Beach. A three mile wide section of the Intracoastal Way, it separates mainland Central Florida from the citrus-rich barrier Orchid Island on the Atlantic Ocean. Subsequent acquisitions have increased the size of this refuge from the original tiny island to 4,760 acres of protected islands and open waters.

It boasts a complex ecological system that supports hundreds of species of birds, fish, plants, and mammals, including 14 federally listed threatened or endangered species. At least 16 different bird species nest on Pelican Island, but brown and white pelicans are the star attractions. These large fish-eating birds with deep-pocket bills are always present.

Kayakers paddle through the shallow waters alongside thick black and red mangroves while graceful dolphins glide by and gentle manatees loaf along. Pelican Island is also a nursery ground for juvenile green sea turtles. In spring and summer, hundreds of brown pelicans nest on the island. Keep an eye out for the endangered wood storks, as well as  egrets, herons, ibises, anhingas, oystercatchers, and cormorants. They all hang out here. Sunset brings on a spectacular show as hundreds of birds fly to the island to roost.

Travel a dozen miles north up Route 1 and you arrive at the village of Sebastian with its "Old Florida" charm.  Walking along Sebastian's riverfront you pass old fish houses and dockside restaurants overlooking marinas harboring pleasure boats of all sizes. Known for the rare antiquities that have washed upon its shores, the shipwreck from the 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet left many treasures along its coast. Today, treasure hunters continue to search for artifacts lost in history.

With a grant of over $3 million dollars, the City of Sebastian is well into creating a working waterfront on the Indian River. Known as "Fisherman's Landing Sebastian" it was created to promote commercial fishing in Florida and its history.

Drop into Crab E Bill's  which offers only day boat fish from local commercial fishermen not caught on long lines or netted. Set in an 84-year-old renovated landmark building, this expansive market showcases a couple dozen catches-- everything from snapper, grouper,  pompano and a large selection of crab to pumpkin salmon (orange in color), succulent sea and bay scallops, lobsters and a nice variety of shrimp. This casual restaurant overlooks the Indian River. Order at the counter and then grab a seat.

Wesley Campbell grew up in Montego Bay, Jamaica where he discovered his passion to cook watching  his parents grilling  jerk chicken in fire pits. Today, Campbell is celebrated for the superb ingredients and dazzling presentations at his award winning Mo-Bay Grill. A few winners: curried tiger shrimp with mashed sweet potatoes and home-made cole slaw, oxtail soup and gently fried cod fritters served with a cherry pepper rémoulade. Save room for the toasted coconut rice pudding.

Finally, pay a visit to Captain Hiram's. A Bahamian-style hangout, the outdoor sand bar is a great place to hang out at the lively pastel colored tables surrounded by coconut palms with a gorgeous view of the marina and Indian River. Fishing charters brimming with the day's catch draw a regular crowd of onlookers to the docks. The Sandbar’s two live music stages regularly host an extensive line-up of national and regional bands, including reggae legends like Toots and the Maytals. Order a Goombay Smash or Shipwreck Mango Mojito and soak in the island vibe.

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