A taste of Old Florida just a quick boat ride away

A prominent scientific researcher once called St. Vincent Island a “jewel.”

That jewel adds a golden hue this year as St. Vincent Island National Island Wildlife Refuge celebrates 50 years.

The 12,490-acre barrier island, just over a quarter of a mile into the Gulf of Mexico, is about as Old Florida as one can get in this region, maybe the state, for that matter.

It certainly is a standout in the National Wildlife Refuge System to which it was added in 1968.

The late Dr. Joe Collins, who was director of the Center for North American Herpetology in Kansas, spent 15 years heading south each winter for surveys of the island's populations of snakes and lizards.

He co-authored “A Pocket Guide to Snakes of St. Vincent Island Wildlife Refuge,” published in 2011.

For Collins, St. Vincent was a “herpetologist's paradise.”

As he put it, repeatedly, there are not many barrier islands without land access; St. Vincent offered a rare opportunity for research.

Collins amassed reams of data on the diversity, distribution, abundance and habitats of amphibians, reptiles, turtles and crocodilians on the island.

In just one year alone, the following critters were surveyed by Collins and his merry band:

Two-toed amphiuma, marbled salamander (2), Eastern newt (6), three-lined salamander (4), Southeastern slimy salamander (5), Eastern spadefoots (4), Southern toad (3), Southern cricket frog (20+), green treefrog (20+), pine woods treefrog (2), squirrel treefrog (15), spring peeper (20+), upland chorus frog (20+), Southern chorus frog (20+), ornate chorus frog (20+), bronze frog, pig frog (2), Southern leopard frog (20+), Eastern narrowmouth toad; green anole (20+), Eastern fence lizard, Southeastern five-lined skink, Broadhead Skink (3), Ground Skink (20+), six-lined racerunner, Eastern racer, scarlet kingsnake, coachwhip, Eastern corn snake, brown water snake, Eastern ribbon snake, common garter snake, rough earth snake, cottonmouth (2), Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, pigmy rattlesnake (9), loggerhead musk turtle, chicken turtle, Eastern river cooter (20+), Eastern box turtle (3), slider (2) and American alligator (20+).

That is a whole lot of wildlife for one island.

“Our work on the island has convinced my colleagues and me that St. Vincent Refuge is one of the most valuable jewels in the National Wildlife Refuge System,” Collins wrote in 2012 shortly before his death. “It provides the kind of isolation that ensures the long-term well-being of its flora and fauna. And that isolation permits the kind of long-term biological research so sorely needed to provide current information for use in wildlife management programs across the southeastern United States.”

And, of course, Collins was only surveying those things which could be characterized as icky and slither in the dark.

The island has long been home to a program to breed red wolves.

Red wolves, native to the Southeastern U.S., were declared extinct in the wild in 1980. But with offspring from the fewer than 20 wolves then in captivity, federal officials have rebuilt a wild population of about 120 wolves at a refuge in North Carolina.

They started putting wolves on St. Vincent in 1990, not to live there permanently but to breed pups for the Carolina clan.

And, it turned out, the wolves enjoyed another of the rarities on St. Vincent, Sambar deer.

A behemoth species imported from India a century ago by an American tycoon who wanted to turn the island into an exotic hunting reserve, the Sambar, similar to elk in stature and weighing as much as 750 pounds, have thrived on the island. Each year, the state organizes a limited hunt for the trophy deer.

The Sambar is just one of the animals stocked on the island by one of its numerous owners; other animals at one time on the island included zebra, eland, black buck, ring-necked pheasant, Asian junglefowl and turkey.

Today, the island remains a stopover for a host of migratory birds and home to a number of shorebirds, from gulls to oystercatchers.

St. Vincent was purchased by The Nature Conservancy in 1968 for $2.2 million and U.S. Fish and Wildlife repaid the cost from Duck Stamp sales and the refuge was established.

St. Vincent offers nearly 20 miles of beach.

There are miles of hiking and biking trails, the remnants of a small settlement on the island and three freshwater lakes of rare beauty, not to mention the abundant wildlife.

The island is quite old, with the earliest documented visitors dating to the year 240 when Native American inhabited the island.

An article in the Orlando Sentinel noted that Google’s aerial image shows the triangular island streaked with fine white lines. Those are former beaches facing the Gulf of Mexico; like the rings that build outward on a tree, those lines provide a growth record of the island. Gulf waves build a new beach every so often, with fresh sand transported by the nearby Apalachicola River from eroding Appalachian Mountains in Georgia.

Most Florida islands display only a few of these beach ridges, St. Vincent has nearly 150.

Joseph Donoghue, a Florida State University geology professor, excavated the ridges to determine their ages so he could calculate the island’s birth date. He put it at 5,000 years ago.

But the beach ridges are more than interesting geology, they are the bones of the multiple, overlapping wilderness types that make St. Vincent one of a kind.

The ridges, spaced from 30 to 300 feet apart, have low spaces in-between, filled with wetlands and lakes. Pine and oak forests cover the rising slopes, while a desert mosaic of cactus, rosemary and bare sand dominates the ridge tops.

“The island is an ecological marvel,” said Eddie Eckley, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological specialist who was once a wildlife tracker on St. Vincent.