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Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
by Kathleen Walls - Photos by Martin and Kathleen Walls
American Roads Travel Magazine

The most interesting natural resource in North Brevard is Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (MINWR) which includes Kennedy Space Center and Canaveral National Seashore. If you want to see vast numbers of wild life and varied species, this is the place to go. We have visited over the years many times. Years ago when we lived in Brevard County, I worked at the Space Center and was able to access the secure portions of this wondrous environment. It’s ironic that one of the most secure, futuristic government facilities in the world is surrounded by some of the most pristine landscapes in central Florida. There had been some development before the government took over but it consisted mostly of orange groves, the remnants of which are still flourishing. Another remnant of its early farm culture are the feral pigs which abound all over the refuge.

Merritt Island is a barrier island extending from the southern end of Volusia County to the middle of Brevard County and enclosed between the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian River. It is filled with marshes, saltwater lagoons and upland woods filled with palmetto and oak hammocks, Water, fresh, salt and brackish estuary fringed by red mangroves, and climate that ranges from temperate to subtropical, create an unbelievable species diversity. Over 500 species of animal life and 1,000 plant varieties, 15 of which are on the threatened or endangered list. Being on the Atlantic Flyway, doesn’t hurt the birding a bit. The refuge is one of the best of the GRBT’s named places.  West Indian manatee, wood stork, roseate tern, green turtle, Kemps Ridley turtle, Atlantic hawksbill turtle, leatherback turtle, loggerhead turtle, southeastern beach mouse, Florida salt marsh snake, piping plover, eastern indigo snake, Florida scrub jay and American alligator are just the threatened or endangered ones there. You can also see herons, ibises, snowy egrets, reddish egrets, red winged blackbirds and too many more to list. Take my word, this is birders heaven!

Start your visit at the Visitor Center four miles east of Titusville on S.R. 402, just off the main entrance road, S. R. 406. Your viewing pleasure will start on the boardwalk trail just behind the Visitor Center. The last time we visited there were three baby ospreys in a nest attended by the parents. The center had placed a telescope for really close up viewing.  A red winged blackbird flitted around near the butterfly garden competing with a few butterflies for our attention and an egret was fishing at the other end of the lake form the osprey’s nest. A bank of Martin houses stands just behind the center. A few ripples hinted at an alligator lurking just below the water’s surface but we didn’t wait around for him to surface. Our main objective that day was the Florida scrub jay. We really wanted a picture of this colorful bird found no where else in the world but the central section of peninsula Florida.  We had glimpsed them before in various spots around the state but never close enough or long enough for a good picture.

The volunteer at the Center concurred with what we had found online: Scrub Ridge Trail, a one-mile foot trail through Florida scrub that is maintained by proscribed burning, was the place to go.

We did not make it all the way from the parking lot to the trail before we spotted our first flash of blue and gray fluttering in the low undergrowth. Excitedly we rushed to get our cameras and gear – I had brought a recording of a scrub jay chirp in a small tape player - ready before our visitor could fly away. But the little jay had no intention of leaving; He just drew us into the entrance of the trail before he was joined by a relative. And then another and another. All told we saw somewhere between five and seven birds. It was hard to get an exact count as they would flutter under a bush or into a low tree and then back into view. In fact they did better than stay in view, they landed on us. On our hats, our shoulders and even our outstretched hands. What a thrill!

 

Feeling really flush, we decided to try our luck at the manatee observation deck on Haulover Canal. We were batting 100 as we peered into the murky water. It was near the middle of May, the peak of the manatee mating season. We were rewarded by a milling mating herd. Although the water was not clear enough to see much beneath it, the manatees were rising much higher and more often than usual so we got a few pictures of more than just a nose breaching the water.

Of course after that we had to try Black Point Wildlife Drive. This is a seven mile self guided driving tour through salt and freshwater marshes. There are pullovers and observation decks all along the waterways. Restrooms are found at the Cruickshank Trailhead which has parking area if you want to do some hiking farther into the marsh. We saw some birds and a few alligators but on other occasions, the viewing was even better here. We viewed otters, roseate spoonbills, snowy egrets, eagles, ducks and many other birds, especially in fall and winter. Naturally we see alligators every time on the drive.

Bio Lab Road, located between S.R. 3 and S.R. 402 running behind Scrub Ridge Trail near Mosquito Lagoon is a five mile drive where you may see a lot of wading birds. It sometimes is a bit rough so don’t try it without a four wheel drive in wet weather.

Oak Hammock and Palm Hammock trails, located on S. R. 402 just a little over a mile past the Visitor Center, and Pine Flatwood Trail, the Refuge’s newest trail, just off S.R. 3 past the Manatee Observation Deck, offer a chance to view more highland wildlife such as deer, armadillos, rabbits, raccoons and others. If you are really lucky, you may spot a bobcat as there are a few on the Refuge. You will find some otters in the freshwater ponds and canals. Because Pine Flatwoods Trail is much more open, it is a likely place to see feral hogs. Be wary of the large boars with tusks as they could charge at you and do a lot of damage. The two hammock trails are best for song birds such as warblers, wrens and Vireos. Also woodpeckers.

Another place where you have a very good chance of seeing Florida scrub jays is on S.R. 402 as you drive east towards Canaveral National Seashore. The birds frequent the area on the side of the road both before and after the toll booth.

If you had to choose only one place to visit when birding, Merritt Island NWR would  have to be at the top of that list.

For more information about MINWR: http://www.fws.gov/merrittisland/Index.html

Provided by American Roads Travel Magazine - Visit American Roads Travel Magazine website.



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