A Short Trip To Florida: Day 1 Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

This past June I was lucky enough to accompany my husband on a short trip to Orlando, Florida. As the cold wind blows outside my window, now seems like the perfect time to reflect upon that visit.

We flew into Florida on Wednesday night, and I had two days on my own while my husband reported to work. After some googling and a long perusal of the National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to Florida (which my lovely husband had presented to me me as a pre-trip present) I decided on a visit to Canaveral National Seashore and the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. After a quick stop for life sustaining supplies (water, Gatorade and fruit snacks), I got on the road. In about an hour’s drive I arrived. I had been enjoying the drive, the atmosphere of Florida being so different from New Jersey that I was definitely aware that I was on vacation. I haven’t been South of the Mason-Dixon line very often so the sight of palm trees and Spanish moss are enough to make me feel I have really traveled somewhere exotic.

My first stop was the Visitor Information Center to buy a day pass and get a trail map of the park. I was very lucky to strike up a conversation with an incredibly helpful attendant. She planned out my entire day, making sure I hit all the highlights and offering several tips which proved useful. She recommended that I check out the short loop trail right behind the center first, as an alligator had been sighted there earlier that morning.

So I headed back to the car to regroup, grabbed the camera, hung my park permit from the rear-view mirror and off I was to start my adventure. The whole trail was buzzing with life. Dragonflies in every possible color imaginable, blue, red, orange, purple. Insects buzzing, butterflies fluttering and lizards scurrying at every turn. I think I even saw the bushy end of a red-orange fox trail, but it was gone so quickly I can’t be sure. I did see the alligator, from a great distance, at first mistaking him for a rock until I checked him out more closely with my telephoto lens. There were several nest platforms in view on this trail, and a pair of Osprey were hanging out in one of the nests. I think they might have been juveniles, based on the way they were behaving. The loop was fairly short and soon I was back in my rental car and on my way to the next trail.

My second destination was the Black Point Wildlife Drive, a one way driving route through the marsh. As I pulled in, I was more than a little nervous about going down the dusty gravel road in a rental car, but soon the scenery distracted me totally. There were several pull offs and I made great use of them, hopping out of the car at the slightest flutter of a bird wing. This drive truly was not to be missed. There were a number of waterbirds hunting in the shallow water. The first bird I saw was a lone Tricolored Heron. Significantly smaller than the Great Blue Heron, the Tricolored Heron is about 24-26 inches. The deep, yet subtle and muted blue of its feathers really makes you wonder how the Great Blue Heron was ever called blue. Watching it for a bit longer, the burgundy or purple feathers along the neck and back become evident. Its beak is so yellow in comparison and the eyes’ reddish-pink. Closer to the road, hunkered down in some short shrubs were a pair of American Coots with their snow white beaks and red eyes. Just a bit further along the drive I noticed a Anhinga. Similar to a Cormorant in size and appearance, the most distinct different to differentiate the Anhinga is its long, thin, pointy, yellow beak, so very different from the black hooked beak of the Cormorant. I could also see Great Egrets and other Herons stalking slowly though the water in the distance.

As the road wound its way around the marsh there was one spot where bird watchers could park and walk up a short path to a few bird blinds. I decided to venture out of the car and stretch my legs. As I first excited the car I noticed what I thought the be another Tricolored Heron, but I quickly observed that this bird was much more red, almost like a very dark flamingo. This Reddish Egret had coloring in what is known as the dark morph, other members of the same species also occur with white feathers. Its toned beak was very interesting, light pink ending in a black tip, almost like it had dipped the end of its bill in black ink.

Once I had snapped enough photos of the Reddish Egret I headed on down the short trail to the bird blind. Had a very quick but close encounter with a snake. I am not sure which of us was more startled, but the snake made the first move, quickly heading away from the sunny path and back toward the water’s edge. I only saw enough of it to guess that it was probably a Southern Water Snake. I decided to leave him be and headed on to take a seat in the bird blind. As I looked at the habitat around me, I noticed some barnacles clinging fairly high up on some vegetation, indicating that the water level in the marsh could climb much higher than I would have suspected.

I did not have to long to think about changing water levels before a Tricolored Heron decided to introduce me to some of the fish, plucking one out of the water right in front to me and waving it around before he finally decided to put the poor thing out of its misery. After watching the Heron hunt for a little bit longer I decided to head back to the car, taking a look in the water as I passed for any fish or turtles I might see. Just as I had almost reached the road, I looked up from the water’s edge and started. There was an alligator calmly hanging out in the water only about 15-20 feet away. Seeing him so close, especially when I was so alone, made me both excited and nervous. I managed to remain fairly calm, take a few photos and then I walked quickly back to the safety of my car.

I continued to drive and stop along the rest of the Black Point drive. One final spot proved worthwhile. The water level was very low and there were large clumps of grass breaking up the open space and providing cover. I noticed another Tricolored Heron standing very near another large bird, which I thought might be a stork. So I parked the car and walked down the road to get a better angle. The Heron’s companion turned out to be a White Ibis juvenile. Similar in size to the Tricolored Heron, the White Ibis looks significantly less intelligent than the Heron. Something about its eyes seemed so much more gentle and perhaps naive. On my way back to the car I noticed some movement in a bush right on the edge of the road. Still very aware of my close encounter with both alligator and snake, I cautiously take a closer look. A Green Heron inched higher up on the bush as I approach, and we watched each other for a few moments as I took its portrait. The subtle green tint, not only to its feathers but also to the flesh around its eyes was so pretty in the sunlight.

I continued to take photos out the window as I completed the loop. I spotted another Anhinga, which I believe was a female given its brown neck and head. I also spotted a Double Crested Cormorant, enjoying its perch on the top of a pole. A Common Moorhen and her chick were swimming and nibbling in one quiet spot. The Moorhen is very similar to the American Coot I had spotted earlier, except for its deep red bill in contrast to the Coot’s white bill. Turning one curve in the road I came upon a group of Glossy Ibis, feeding on crustaceans in the shallows. Very similar in shape to the White Ibis, their coloring is their one noticeable difference.

Having completed the drive, my next destination was the Manatee observation deck. Located in the Haulover canal, the deck doesn’t look like much. A concrete platform with railings, overlooking the canal. But as you approach the railings you begin to understand why everyone is hanging over the edge. At least six manatees were just below the surface, chowing down on underwater vegetation. The most of any one of them you can see is their backs, the occasional tail flick and their little noses poking out of the water for a breath of fresh air. They never fully surfaced. They never really stopped their munching and lunching.

Moving on from the Manatees, the visitor center attendant had recommended that if I wanted to take a walk, I should definitely visit the Scrub Jay Trail. So off I went. When I pulled into the trail the only other car in the parking area was pulling out. It was just a bit after lunchtime, pretty hot and it was starting to get a bit buggy (although over all I would not say that I was really attacked by the swarm of bugs I was expecting). I starting walking along the trail, keeping my eyes peeled on the ground as well as the sky. There were high grasses on parts of the trail and I wasn’t sure if I might see another snake. Other than a few dragonflies whizzing by, I didn’t see anything for the first third of the trail. I was just considering whether I should turn back when I heard this rather angry sounding grunt, right next to my right ankle. I turned to look and saw a large Gopher Tortoise right next to my foot, in the shoulder of the path. He repeated his guttural noise and this time he made it clear that his grunt was really a growl. Aware that I was clearly invading his personal space I quickly backed off and took my photos from a safe distance. While bizarre, this encounter gave me renewed enthusiasm for the path and I continued down the trail with a bit more hop in my step.

A Brown Pelican flew overhead and I got some more good photos of dragonflies resting on reeds. At one point, as I was walking under some taller trees I had the sensation that I was being watched. I looked around, but didn’t spot anyone on the trail. Slowly I look up into the tree to see an Osprey staring down at me, very intensely. I had apparently interrupted his lunch and he wanted me out of the way. I continued down the path a bit more and saw my first Scrub Jay, Florida’s finest. Friendly and fairly inquisitive, the Scrub Jay’s actions were very similar to its cousin the Blue Jay. It hoped from branch to branch, checking me out at every step. I got some lovely photos when I suddenly realized that the Jay looked like he was about to launch himself off of ihis perch, right at me. We were only a few feet from each other. I was very anxious until I remembered that the visitor center attendant had mentioned that the Scrub Jays were overly friendly because people fed them and not to be surprised if one decided to perch on my shoulder. As soon as that very thought passed through my mind he was in the air. I squeezed my eyes closed, expecting to feel a weight on my shoulder. But instead I felt a plop on my head. The Scrub Jay had decided my hat looked like a promising place to find some lunch. He sat on my head, systematically inspecting every inch,. He was so focused I was able to snap not one, but a whole series of selfies with my phone. He stayed on my head so long, that I wanted to get walking again. I didn’t want to shoo him off, so I started walking. He must not have liked the direction I was headed, because he hopped off onto a nearby branch and that was the end of our intimate relationship.

I had one final stop to make before I started driving back to Orlando to meet my husband for dinner. The beach at Cape Canaveral. As I pulled into one of the first parking lots, I noticed a Black Vulture sitting on the top of the bathroom hut. Very similar in appearance to the Turkey Vultures I am used to seeing in New Jersey, the Black Vulture has a black skin on its naked head. Leaving the Vulture behind, I headed for the stairs up to the beach. I took off my shoes and socks and launched myself onto the boiling hot sand. I hadn’t been thinking about how hot the sun had been, beating down on the sand most of the day, as it was now about 2pm. I ran with all hast toward the water. Once my feet felt some relief I looked around myself and got my barrings. A clear, beautiful day. The beach had more occupants than I had expected for a weekday. The blankets and umbrellas were pretty spread out and I was able to maneuver around everyone. And then I saw them. A huge group of White Ibis walking up the beach, hunting for invertebrates in the surf. They were totally focused on food and paid little attention to the humans, who in turn didn’t seem to interested in the birds. I couldn’t stop watching them. The light blue of their eyes was so stunning. So was the bring reddish-pink of their bills against their snowy white feathers. Once they passed, I wandered up the beach a bit. I noticed a lot of round holes along the beach, but I couldn’t figure out what was forming them. The birds were not that high up on the sand, so it wasn’t their bills. Then I noticed something scurrying across the sand and popping into a hole. Ghost crabs, were making the holes, which they would carefully inch out of to wander around the beach. At the first sign of danger they would run (sideways) across the sand and dive back down into their dark little hole.

If you cannot tell by the length of this post and the number of photos I have included, I had an amazing time at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. I have decided it is a little piece of heaven on earth and I hope I will have the opportunity to visit it again in my lifetime. The refuge was formed alongside NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in the early 1960s, with the National Seashore directly adjacent being established in 1975. A day pass to the refuge will also allow you on the Seashore for free. Both are well worth a visit if you are anywhere in the area. For more information, you can visit https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Merritt_Island/

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