Add this to your list of things to do in the Florida Keys — especially for kids.
Next time you head south on the Overseas Highway for an outing in the Keys, take a few minutes to stop at MM 93.6 in Tavernier.
Wander along a boardwalk through a mangrove forest and visit the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center, a volunteer-run facility with an informal, backyard sort of feel.
The center is free, though after seeing the work being done, we wanted to stuff some dollars into the donation box on the way out. It’s open from sunrise to sunset, and you’re free to wander without anyone hassling or bothering you.
It’s a great place to bring kids; a stop will only take 15 or 20 minutes, unless you decide to linger.
The shady mangrove forest is sectioned off via wire caging to create enclosures for injured birds. You’ll see lots of awkward Eastern Brown Pelicans hopping around with just a stub where one wing should be. There are Great Egrets and cormorants and several varieties of owls and hawks.
But the place is full of birds outside the cages, too, with pelicans, herons and egrets hanging around hoping to snatch a little food. A volunteer busy feeding the birds told us: “We have no problem with birds breaking out, our problem is preventing birds from breaking in.”
Every rail and surface is covered with small handcrafted signs marking dedications, memorials and contributions.
The paths leads down to the waterfront, where you can gaze on to a lovely view of Florida Bay and its active bird life.
Along the shore, a blind next to a wetland had a sign about how to report information on roseate spoonbills wearing tracking bands. And, as if he’d read the sign, a roseate spoonbill preened himself in the pond right there.
The center used to let visitors help with the daily pelican feeding, but the lawyers put a stop to that.
There are other changes afoot at this two-decade-old Keys facility, too, but they’re good changes.
Like so many worthwhile community projects, this one was started by a dedicated woman. The Bird Lady, Laura Quinn, used her own property and for 35 years she cared for hundreds of injured birds there. Quinn died in September, 2010.
Supporting the center through a recession has not been easy. Last year, the center was at risk of closing and some feared the property would be lost to development. Fortunately, new leadership and major donations emerged — $700,000 from the Robert Gintel Family Foundation and a $700,000 challenge grant from the Ocean Reef Foundation.
Volunteers said the facility will be upgraded, and already a better bird hospital has been established.
Thousands of people and an estimated 1,000 injured birds pass through the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center every year.
I’m pretty sure most of them leave happier than when they arrive.
Video of a worker at Florida Keys Wild Bird Center capturing a pelican with a head injury.
Florida Keys Wild Bird Center, 93600 Overseas Hwy MM 93.6, Tavernier, FL 33070. (305) 852-4486 .
Resources for planning a Florida Keys vacation::
- Mile marker guide with dozens of stops to help make the most of your drive south.
- Florida Keys wildlife: Places to see animals
- Tiki bars: Soak up the Keys atmosphere
- 12 great kayak outings in the Keys
- Top 10 pit stops on Overseas Highway
- Free beaches in the Florida Keys
Exploring the upper Keys
- Original African Queen boat in Key Largo
- Florida Keys Wild Bird Center
- John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
- Islamorada emerging as hub with new museum, brewery
- Indian Key: Kayak into history
- Feed the tarpon at Robbie’s Marina
Camping and lodging
- Best tent camping in the Keys
- Long Key: Beach camping in the Keys
- Camping in Middle Keys: Curry Hammock State Park
- Camping near Key West
- Camping at the Dry Tortugas
- Classic Keys cabins on Big Pine Key