GET IN FREE: WILDLIFE REFUGES
National Wildlife Refuges are getting a lot of attention as of late but for all the wrong reasons. Oregon's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, its headquarters recently occupied by armed antigovernment protesters, is also a great place to see birds. So are Florida's St. Marks NWR (established in 1931, it's one of the oldest in the United States), J.N. "Ding" Darling NWR and Ten Thousand Islands NWR. If you have never explored one of these American treasures, now's your chance. Admission is free on Monday (Martin Luther King Jr. Day), Feb. 13-15 (Presidents Day Weekend), Sept. 24 (National Public Lands Day), Oct. 9 (first Sunday of National Wildlife Refuge Week) and Nov. 11-13 (Veterans Day weekend). The NWR System, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is the nation's premier habitat conservation network, encompassing more than 150 million acres in 563 refuges and 38 wetland management districts. Most refuges admit the public free year-round, but some of the more popular ones charge a small entrance fee to cover maintenance and visitor services. Visit fws.gov/refuges.
GREAT GETAWAY: OSCAR SCHERER STATE PARK
Just down the coast in Osprey, Oscar Scherer State Park is one of the one of the best places in the state to see the elusive Florida scrub jay. Hike 15 miles of trails through the pine flatwoods or rent a canoe or kayak and paddle South Creek, a tannic stream that flows into the Gulf of Mexico. The park also has great full-facility campsites as well as one of the best youth/group camping areas on the west coast of Florida. The Lester Finley Barrier Free Nature Trail, in South Creek Picnic Area, accommodates those with sight, hearing or mobility impairments. It has a wheelchair-accessible fishing dock, butterfly observation area and drinking fountain. The park also links to the Legacy Trail, a paved "Rails to Trails" project that's ideal for walking, biking, jogging or inline skating. It runs all the way to Venice, where you can comb the beach for fossilized shark teeth. Bring your fishing pole because the creek has freshwater and saltwater species. The park's nature center is a great place to introduce youngsters to the ecology of this area. (941) 483-5956. floridastateparks.org.
ABOUT THOSE SCRUB JAYS: FAMILY LOVE
The scrub jay, one of the state's rarer birds, is a 12-inch-long jay that prefers classic Florida scrub land. This friendly bird likes shrubs and brush in the 5- to 8-foot range, which means the area must burn frequently. They mate for life and nest in a shallow basket of twigs lined with palmetto fibers, usually about 3 to 10 feet off the ground. Scrub jays live in family groups, sometimes with birds "adopted" from other families. Scrub jays exhibit a well-established "sentinel system" and will warn each other about the approach of predators. Their original range, estimated at 7,000 square miles, has been reduced by development, and as a result, they are now considered a Threatened Species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
SMART WOOL: YES, IN FLORIDA
Most folks can't imagine wearing wool in Florida, but the new Corbet 120 from Smart Wool is an ideal jacket and/or underlayer for adventurers looking for warmth without weight. The wool insulation on the front of the jacket will keep you cozy even when wet. It's ideal for backpackers, kayakers and any other outdoor enthusiast looking for a high-tech base layer. Price: $200. smartwool.com.