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A Key Largo must-see: the Wild Bird Sanctuary

Key Largo waits off the southern tip of Florida like a palm-fringed oasis. Surrounded by sea as clear and blue as the Caribbean, this tropical island continues to be a favorite escape for the Island Runaways. Sometimes we snorkel on the reefs; we always make time watch the spectacular sunset over Florida Bay. On one recent island getaway to Key Largo, Zickie and I stopped to explore the Wild Bird Sanctuary, located at 93600 Overseas Highway.

island runaways

(Pelicans, ibises, and seagulls in Key Largo. Photo (c) Zickie Allgrove.)

You might think that a bird sanctuary which houses injured birds might be a depressing place. Not so, as we discovered. You park in a lot, and just go right onto a boardwalk surrounded by native buttonwood trees. The center only asks for a donation for each person; there’s no ticket to buy.

island travel blog

(The entrance where you pay a donation. Photo (c) Zickie Allgrove.)

Toward the entrance we spotted a cockatoo. Sometimes pet birds escape in the Keys, and are attacked by cats or other animals. The center gets called to come to the rescue. This cockatoo actually started to flirt with us, which was an endearing way to begin our self-guided tour.

visit Key Largo

(What a flirt! Photo (c) Zickie Allgrove.)

Zickie, our daughter, and I grew quiet as we spotted owls. One had a neat little nest where he (or she) perched, and surveyed us sternly. Another owl appeared to be taking a nap. (“They are nocturnal animals,” we reminded ourselves.)

Caribbean travel blogger

(Siesta time. Photo (c) Zickie Allgrove.)

The center also houses birds of prey, such as falcons and hawks. It was strangely moving to see these magnificent creatures so close, much closer than you can usually get in nature. As much as possible, we learned, the sanctuary treats birds in their hospital, rehabilitates them, and once they’ve recovered, releases them. Some birds are brought in with discarded fishing hooks caught in their bills or beaks. Sadly, many of the injuries result from some kind of human trash or negligence. In certain cases, an injury is so harmful that a bird will never be able to survive again in the wild. Those are the birds that wind up housed permanently in the bird sanctuary.

The day we visited volunteers and staff were out working hard in the afternoon heat. They refilled water containers and cleaned the cages. It must take a lot of work to “scoop the poop” from all those birds, but they do a good job, because there were no unpleasant smells as we strolled the boardwalks, just an enjoyable sea breeze.

Florida Keys getaway

(Walking the boardwalk. Photo (c) Zickie Allgrove.)

Toward the seashore were seabirds that had been injured: pelicans and cormorants, those black birds that can dive so fluidly under the ocean. These creatures all seemed full of personality and made lots of noise.

Wild Bird Center Key Largo

(Grooming time. Photo (c) Zickie Allgrove.)

The center backs onto Florida Bay, and here various species of (uninjured and uncaged) birds gathered, hoping for scraps: pelicans, egrets, ibises, and seagulls. They must occasionally get a treat in this spot, because the birds seemed very excited.

On the other side of the parking lot are paths so you can walk through tropical hammock, the type of forest that used to be found all throughout southern Florida and the Keys. We welcomed a break in the shade. There weren’t many people at the center, so it was quiet, except for an occasional birdcall. All in all, each one of us agreed that we truly enjoyed the Wild Bird Center experience.

When we drive down from Miami for a Key Largo weekend, it’s usually to experience what the rest of the world comes here for: the clear, turquoise sea. Snorkeling, kayaking, boating, or fishing: these are the activities that the Florida Keys have grown justifiably famous for. But the Wild Bird Sanctuary reminded me that the Keys in fact have much more to offer, from birdlife to museums to history. Lately, I’ve written about islands that take a little extra effort to reach, like Harbour Island in the Bahamas and Carriacou in Grenada. But sometimes, for this island runaway, the perfect island paradise is the one waiting just beyond my own backyard.

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