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This Island Has "Merritt": Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge


by Donald E. Chamberlain

Wading Spoonbill
Wading Spoonbill
Contest Winning Photo

Unbelievable! The Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is found on the same island as the Kennedy Space Center. In fact it is closed to the public at times when shuttle lift-offs or landings are imminent. However, without the Space Center the refuge would be quite different. The presence of the Space Center has limited urban development on the island and created habitats for the more than 500 species of animals and plants in the region.
You can reach the refuge by accessing State Route 406 from Interstate 95 (Exit 90) or from U.S. 1. Taking this route will allow you to cross a drawbridge over the Indian River Intracoastal Waterway. As you cross the drawbridge drive be alert for pelicans, gulls, terns, and other shorebirds scavenging for food along the shore. The entrance to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is just ahead on route 406. You will encounter a fork in the road about a mile after passing the refuge entrance. Take the right fork (route 402) to visit the refuge Visitor Center. This is excellent stop to get maps and schedules, observe displays, and visit their gift shop. There is a short walking trail (1/4 mile) behind
the center. After leaving the center turn left and retrace your path to the fork encountered earlier.


White Pelicans en masse
White Pelicans en masse

Black Point Wildlife Drive.

Follow the sign to the entrance to the Black Point Wildlife Drive (about a mile on your left). This one-way road winds for seven miles through salt marshes, mud flats, and low palms and shrubs. Which types of birds encountered depends on the time of day, state of the tide, and time of year. While the birds are not startled by the approach of your automobile, if you leave your vehicle, you may find your subject winging its way to a new locale. My advice is to first take as many shots from your car as you can, THEN leave your mobile blind to set up your tripod. About halfway along the drive there is a stop which will allow you to do some hiking. This is the Cruickshank Nature Trail. This five-mile trail winds through this region of the refuge and returns you to the parking lot. An observation tower, located a short distance from the parking area provides an elevated view of this area of the refuge. Exactly which birds will be visible here is unpredictable. On one visit as I hiked to the tower, the shrubs near the trail contained many Least Bitterns. In subsequent visits, I have not seen another. On another visit, waves of white pelicans soared into the area and were visible from the Observation Tower. I regularly see egrets (great, reddish, and snowy), tricolor herons, ibises (both white and glossy), roseate spoonbills, and other wading birds. At times Wood Storks and pelicans are in the area as well.


Gator near Shore
Gator near Shore

BioLab Road Drive.

A lesser-known site in the refuge is BioLab Road. As you leave the Black Point Wildlife Drive, you will return to Route 406. To access BioLab Road, turn left and follow the road to stop sign (Route 3). Turn left and about 1.5 miles from the turn, you will see a boat ramp sign and an old concrete block building (a former Biology Lab). Turn right and just before reaching the boat ramp there will be a road to the right. This is BioLab Road.
This road takes you on a four-mile journey along the edge of Mosquito Lagoon. Along this road I have photographed egrets, great blue, tricolor, and little blue herons, spoonbills, and ibises wading in the water to the left and to the right. I have also photographed osprey and herons perched in nearby tree snags (sometimes eating fish) Other birds sighted include sandpipers, ruddy turnstones, black skimmers, terns, gulls, cormorants, and anhingas. There is also a good chance of seeing alligators in the streams as you drive through.
At the end of BioLab Road where it rejoins route 402, you can look across the horizon and see the Vehicle Assembly Building and two launch pads of the Kennedy Space Center. This makes for an interesting transition between the natural beauty of the refuge and the modern technology of the Space Center. It gives one a strong feeling that with forethought, these worlds can coexist.


Great Egret Wading in Green Water
Great Egret Wading in Green Water


Walking Trails

For those who prefer hiking there are a number of hiking trails at Merritt Island as well as driving trails. Three trails are listed below. For all three trails, take water, insect spray, and none of them have rest room facilities.

Located a mile north of the Visitor Center on the left is the trailhead for two Hammock Trails.
The Oak Hammock Trail is a one-half mile trail trough a subtropical forest dominated by oaks. Many songbirds including warblers, vireos, wrens as well as woodpeckers and flycatchers may be seen along trail.
The Palm Hammock Trail is a longer trail and not always accessible because mudding due to tropical storms. However, many of the same species of birds inhabit trees along this trail.

Along route 3 on the way to BioLab Road is the Scrub Ridge Trail. This trail takes you on a journey through pines, oaks, palmettos, and Sabal Palms. As the name suggests this habitat is host to the Florida Scrub Jay an endangered species.


Reddish Egret in the Weeds
Reddish Egret in the Weeds

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is an excellent birding and bird photography resource. Most of the birds are well acclimated to human presence.
With patience and some luck, you can witness the feeding “dance” of the Reddish Egret, the coordinated feeding behavior of American Avocets as they move across the water like a horde of hungry locusts, or the aerobatics of Black Skimmers as they skim the surface of water in search of their prey. In my view this is one of the most underrated birding sites in Florida. I’m sure you’ll agree that as place to photograph birds, this island really has “Merritt”.