The summer of 2019 will forever be defined by my move to Tallahassee. Though only three hours from my previous hometown, this relocation was still characterized by the endless sifting through things (do I take this? do I leave that?), bickering with my husband, and starting a new job before finding a permanent place to settle down. Needless to say, there was little time left over for birding.

Until now.

Tallahassee is surrounded by lakes, springs, and forest, located only 30-45 minutes from the Gulf of Mexico. A relatively brief drive from my office downtown, and I find myself surrounded by marsh at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. Two years ago, I had briefly stopped over at the refuge boat ramp on my way towards scalloping, but now I could return every day if I wanted, scouting for new birds.

One evening, my husband and I drove slowly down the winding road towards the beautiful lighthouse, stopping here and there to peer through binoculars. A giant alligator lolled near a pond, herons and egrets stalked the shallow mudflats for prey, Black Skimmers flew low over the surface of the water to scoop up tiny fish. The highlight for me in the inland wetlands remains a Marbled Godwit, my first.

The Sun Sets over St. Marks

The sun sets over the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.

Here, birds make up only some of the wildlife sightings. Deer wade into the shallows to munch on marsh grass, trailing fawns behind them. A raccoon investigates crabs on the mud flats. And I never forget to look for alligators.

The best part? Summer birding isn’t the best season here at St. Marks, which covers 68,000 acres in Florida. As the weather eventually cools and migration begins in earnest, waterfowl of all shapes and sizes descend on these wetlands and marshes, filling the public preserve with feathers and noise. After all, the refuge was established in 1931 to protect the wintering grounds of migratory species, and my head has already filled with dreams of crisp, cool hikes, trusty binoculars over my shoulder.

Written by Erika Zambello
Erika Zambello is a National Geographic Young Explorer who grew up in Maine, inspiring a deep interest in nature at an early age. She fell in love with birding after receiving a Sibley field guide for Christmas during her senior year in college, and has birded across the eastern seaboard and internationally ever since. To inspire others to protect birds and the environment, she has blogged for the Conservation Fund, Sarah P. Duke Gardens, Triangle Land Conservancy, and Duke University, and is writing a birding guide to Northern New England for Wilderness Adventures Press. She has founded, and is currently living along the Emerald Coast in Florida's Panhandle. You can check out her exploration site or follow her on Instragram.