Trip Report: Merritt Island NWR

It’s January. Where can you find warmth, green leaves, and lots of birds? We found all three at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Located on Florida’s Space Coast, Merritt Island shares a boundary with Cape Canaveral. You can actually see the launch pad off in the distance as you enter the refuge. Apparently launches don’t discourage the birds from hanging out nearby. Maybe that’s because they know they can fly circles around any rocket!

The day we arrived, the temperature was predicted to hit 83°. In my opinion, that’s perfect January weather! We planned to show up at dawn but we didn’t quite make it. Still, it was plenty early and the birds were out and about.

Florida Scrub Jay_MerrittIslandNWR-FL_LAH_4150 As we accelerated from the entry booth (the fee is a reasonable $5, or free with duck stamp), I immediately yelled out “Stop!” and Pete obligingly slammed on the brakes. On our left were two Florida Scrub Jays, one of my target species for the trip. They hung around long enough for me to grab some shots, then flew off into the bushes.

For starters, we headed for the Black Point Wildlife Drive, a 7 mile one-way auto tour.

Tricolored Heron_MerrittIslandNWR-FL_LAH_3462It’s perfectly fine to stop and get out of the car, as long as you pull off to the side. That was important, because we soon came to a small pond simply stuffed with white birds! Great and Snowy Egrets, White Ibis, and a Wood Stork were all busily snapping up fish. They were eventually joined by Little Blue and Tricolored Herons. The latter put on quite the show with their exuberant dance-step fishing techniques (left). It was photographer heaven!

Just when I thought it couldn’t possibly get any better, a small flock of Roseate Spoonbills flew by. Unfortunately, they kept on going, and I never got the close-up pictures I was hoping for. Still, a flying spoonbill is better than no spoonbill at all. I’m not complaining.

Snowy Egret_MerrittIslandNWR-FL_LAH_3570After spending almost an hour at this one pond, we piled back into the car and finished the drive. There were other birds—an Osprey perched right by the road, a Bald Eagle in a tree, more assorted herons and Glossy Ibis, along with several friendly alligators warming themselves in the sunshine. Then we headed for the beach.

Merritt Island National Seashore shares the same spit of land as the wildlife refuge, and entry is included in the NWR fee. I was hoping for some interesting gulls, terns, and shorebirds. As I hiked up over the dunes and onto the sand, I felt a bit overdressed in my jeans, with my camera and binos around my neck, and my field guide and notebook in my backpack. Everyone else was wearing bathing suits!

Forster's Tern_MerrittIslandNWR-FL_LAH_4279Still, I found a place between the sunbathers and Frisbee-throwers and started identifying gulls and terns. By far the most abundant species were Ring-billed Gulls (I drove 1,500 miles to see those?) and Forster’s Terns (above). I checked every single bird, hoping for something different. My diligence paid off when I noticed that one of the terns had a beak with a yellow tip—a Sandwich Tern!

Sanderlings_MerrittIslandNWR-FL_LAH_4352Sanderlings were running up and down the beach, chasing the waves for coquina clams. They were joined by Ruddy Turnstones, Willets, and Black-bellied Plovers in their unassuming winter plumage. Brown Pelicans flapped offshore, then plunged into the ocean to scoop up fish.

The beach was lovely, but I had more birds to see. Back in the car, we returned to the west side of the island and drove down to the drawbridge and boat ramp. Another visitor had reported manatees in the area, and I really wanted to see them.

Manatee_MerrittIslandNWR-FL_LAH_4110As we arrived, I was amazed at the number of Black Vultures occupying the parking lot. They seemed totally fearless, and I was able to walk right up to them. Several people were pointing at the water, and we walked over to have a look. Sure enough, manatees. At least, that’s what I was told. What I actually saw was a few cow-sized potatoes floating just under the water. Every so often a gray lump would break the surface and there would be some chomping. Once, I actually saw nostrils. After all the manatee hype, finally seeing them was astonishingly anticlimactic.

Black Skimmers_MerrittIslandNWR-FL_LAH_4402Evening comes early in winter, so we decided to head for dinner and a good night’s rest. As we crossed the causeway back to the mainland, I noticed a number of large, dark-colored birds sitting on the ground next to the water. Naturally, we pulled over. As I hopped out, the birds took to the air, and we were suddenly engulfed by a large flock of Black Skimmers! I squeezed out a few more photos in the failing light. All in all, we tallied 39 species during a thoroughly delightful day.

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