When I consider birding in Florida, Merritt Island NWR immediately comes to mind. While the state is filled with outstanding birding hotspots, this refuge, directly adjacent to Canaveral National Seashore and the Kennedy Space Center, is one of my favorites. The birds are accessible, the wildlife drive offers excellent views for a photographer, and there is plenty of variety.
We last visited five years ago, in 2014, and I was hoping for more of the same—warm sunshine, not too many people, and plenty of birds. What we got was that and more.
Having been here before, I had already amassed a collection of photos, but there were a few species that had proved elusive. Now I had another chance.
We arrived early in the morning, and the sun was just breaking through the mist. As we turned onto the 7-mile Black Point Wildlife Drive, I tried to fix the experience in my mind, to be retrieved the next time it snowed, once we were back home again.
Herons came in many colors—blue, white, red (or all three), as well as green—and in sizes from little to great. Ibises were limited to black or white, although the brilliant bill on the latter made for an eye-catching accent.
Common Gallinules, Pied-billed Grebes, and Blue-winged Teal glided across the water, while a variety of shorebirds—Willets, Killdeer, Marbled Godwits, Yellowlegs—probed the mud. The Wood Storks are so ugly, they’re cute!
A Bald Eagle slowly flapped past, joining the dozens of Turkey Vultures circling overhead. I identified the Red-tailed Hawk by the characteristic white V on its back—and the red tail. I wondered if it could be leucistic, its plumage was so light.
The bird I most wanted to photograph was the flamingo-pink Roseate Spoonbill. Like flamingos, their bright color derives from a diet of reddish crustaceans. On our last visit they refused to come within camera range, even with my longest lens set-up. This time they were far more obliging.
Of course, no trip to a Florida wetland is complete without the obligatory alligator. This one was medium-sized—just right for picture-taking.
Once we’d completed the 7-mile loop a couple of times, we decided to grab some lunch in near-by Titusville. Then we returned to the refuge to check out a few more locations. I’d already spent a day on the beach where we were staying, about an hour north, but we stopped by this one too just in case. I found a number of people fishing, but few birds—just the ubiquitous Laughing and Ring-billed Gulls, and a few Brown Pelicans.
By this time, it was mid-afternoon. The abundance of bird life had diminished to a few stalwart egrets. I suspected the rest of the crowd had opted for napping on some hidden roost. Deciding that the birds were more sensible than the birders, we followed suit.
Birds, from top: Roseate Spoonbill, Glossy Ibis, Common Yellowthroat, Little Blue Heron, Great Blue Heron, Green Heron, Tricolored Heron, Common Gallinule, Blue-winged Teal, Marbled Godwit, Yellowlegs sp., Wood Stork, Red-tailed Hawk, Roseate Spoonbill (2), American Alligator, Ring-billed Gull, Laughing Gull, beach (note gantries in background).