Pros: Excellent birding year-round, very quiet except for birds!
Cons: Very buggy - bring DEET, no potties
Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge is likely one of the least known refuges on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Located about 1 hour southwest of Gainesville, Florida; Cedar Keys NWR covers about 800 acres on 13 keys (islands) in the Gulf. Most of the keys are tiny, the two most significant keys for visitors are Atsena Otie Key - about 1 mile from the dock in the town of Cedar Key and Sea Horse Key - approx. 5 miles from town. For bird watchers and naturalists, the NWR is one of the "must sees" on a short list of Florida destinations.
Cedar Key - the town: The town is small - has a population of about 700 depending on the season. It's primarily a fishing village (Cedar Key clams are famous and delicious!) and is supplemented by seasonal tourism. The town has a bit of a "lost in time" feel to it and is relatively non-commercial. There are no McDonalds, Starbucks, or hotel chains here. And there's no Disney or "$5 Disney Tshirts". There are brown pelican shirts however... The area is relatively undiscovered except for area fisherpeople, birdwatchers, and a few snowbirds.
Sea Horse Key: largely undeveloped and closed to the public during breeding season (March through July - check the dates!) is a bird-watcher's dream. The branches of coastal trees are filled with birds - carrying on quite loudly! Species I've seen include: Frigate birds; Brown Pelicans; White Ibis; Roseate Spoonbills; Little Blue, Great Blue, Yellow-Crowned Night, and Tri-color Herons; Willets; Snowy and White Egrets; Osprey; Woodstorks; and Cormorants. I've also seen seasonally White Pelicans, Skimmers, Oyster-Catchers, Common Loons, and various water fowl. The interior of the island is off-limits to the public, but you definitely don't want to go inland due to an over eager crowd of no-seeums, biting flies, and poisonous snakes. There are no sanitary facilities on this key, no water. Fishing and swimming on the beach is definitely a highlight of any trip - after viewing the birds of course.
Atsena Otie Key: This key is also known locally as the "shell island". The island is about a mile off shore from the town of Cedar Key making it very appealing for a quick hop over. There is an inland trail with a small cemetery inland. There is also a pit toilet on the island. A long dock allows fishing. And there's a nice beach for playing in the water and swimming. Birds aren't as dense on this island and it is more travelled than Sea Horse Key.
Getting there: both islands are only accessible by boat. Atsena Otie is accessible by sea kayak, even for those who are not strong paddlers. The Gulf waters are fairly calm and shallow. Sea Horse Key is further out and probably should only be kayaked to by the experienced. There are two options for boats in Cedar Key - there are several local businesses that will take you out via small boat (for a fee) and either tour around the island with a brief drop and return or they will drop you for a set period of time. You can also rent boats at the town dock or marina and visit on your own clock. If you take the boat yourself, be sure to be familiar with the times of the tides and keep track of time. The beaches are very shallow and it's quite easy to strand yourself in mud requiring you to wait until the tide comes back in (and your boat return is way overdue!) Be sure to bring your DEET-based repellant, sun block, salty foods, and bottled water. The breeze makes it feel much cooler than it really is and it's quite easy to get sun poisoning... been there.
On a personal note: I love this place, in fact, I liked it so much that I bought a vacation condo down here so I can visit throughout the year. Even during the colder months, the birding in town on the coast edges is quite good for those not brave enough to face cold salt spray to get out to the NWR islands. So, my opinion is a bit biased, but this is the first (and only!) time I'll ever invest this much into a place I don't live. Next time you need a birding fix - give Cedar Key a try!