VERO BEACH ― For the first time since the onset of the pandemic, Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge is resuming meet-and-greets with park staff. Refuge Ranger Eddie Perri says the timing is perfect, as the famous snowbirds known as the Great White Pelicans have just returned to town, providing spectacular bird viewing opportunities.

The Great White Pelican is a huge bird, measuring up to 71 inches long, with an 11 foot wingspan and an 18 inch bill.

“This time of year is really special, because coming into the winter we have the arrival of the Great White Pelicans,” Ranger Perri told Hometown News. “This past week is the first we’ve started seeing them. Seeing those big white pelicans flying overhead is really special. They are only in our area over the winter. We just saw our first groupings of them last week, so they just started coming. When you see a flock of white pelicans flying overhead, they are so big, it is really cool. Compared to what we normally see, they are giant. They are only here for the winter.”

Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge was established as the first refuge of the National Wildlife Refuge System on March 14, 1903 by President Teddy Roosevelt. The refuge includes 5,445 acres of land and water and offers visitor access on four trails every day of the year from sunrise to sunset.

Ranger Perri will be running the free meet-and-greets, which will be held on Centennial Trail from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. on five Saturdays, beginning Nov. 21 and continuing through Dec. 19. Social distancing and masks are encouraged during interactions.

Join staff and volunteers to learn about the many species of birds and other wildlife that can be seen at the historic refuge.

“These meet-and-greets used to go on regularly here, but COVID stopped them,” Ranger Perri said. “We’re excited to get them going again.”

A display will be set up near the trailhead kiosk featuring wildlife artifacts and information about the animals who live at the refuge, including gopher tortoises, bobcats, and coyotes. The refuge provides habitat for more than 200 species of birds, including brown and white pelicans, herons, wood storks and roseate spoonbills.

“Centennial Trail is our big attraction,” Ranger Perri said. “The Centennial Trail has a walk-through of the history of the National Wildlife Refuge system. We’ll have a group of volunteers set up at a table with educational material, some artifacts like sea turtle skulls and bird beaks. We have information regarding the wildlife refuge, and we can explain what we do here. We’ll have interpretive programs and activities for kids. We’ll see the butterfly garden, and talk about the plants. It’s a one-stop shop for learning about the refuge system and our local ecosystem.”

“The entire Centennial Trail is ADA-accessible,” Ranger Perri said. “It is paved for wheelchair access. It culminates in a boardwalk overlooking the lagoon and Pelican Island.”

Children are most definitely invited and welcome.

“It is a wonderful experience for kids. We’ll have kids’ activities, and the trail itself is wide open so kids can run around and have fun. Our volunteers at the meet-and-greet table will have activities for the kids.”

Visitors have birding opportunities before or after the meet-and-greets throughout the refuge. Recommended spots for birding are the observation tower on the Centennial Trail boardwalk overlooking the Pelican Island rookery, and the observation platform in the salt marsh on Joe Michael Memorial Trail.

“We have a number of trails, with wildlife watching and bird viewing. There’s a small trail system with two separate three mile loops that go around the lagoon. Then we have one inland trail, which is one mile round trip; that’s the wildlife trail where you’ll see more upland vegetation, flowers, and wildlife.”

If you like flowers and plants, you won’t want to miss the newly renovated pollinator garden.

“That is on the Centennial Trail, roughly the location where we set up our meet-and-greet table,” Ranger Perri said. “There are small pathways through a wild pollinator garden, and we have a small manicured section where we hand-selected and planted specific pollinators, so the public can see what they are and learn to identify specific plants as they’re walking around the trails.”

Ranger Perri cautioned that those who like to have water accessible should bring their own water bottles. There are no beverages for sale.

The meet-and-greets are free of charge, including parking.

The public use areas are located on the Historic Jungle Trail off of U.S Highway A1A, 3.7 miles north of Wabasso Beach Road (CR 510) or 3.3 miles south of Sebastian Inlet.

To find the meet-and-greet, set your phone mapping app to 11455 Jungle Trail in Vero Beach. That address will put you in a parking lot that only serves the Centennial Trail. If you park in that parking lot, you can’t miss Centennial Trail.

The public use areas are open daily, from 7:30 a.m. until sunset. Meet-and-greets are on Saturdays, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.

For more information, email edward_perri@fws.gov.

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