Impoundment at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (click photos to enlarge)
High on my list of places to visit on my trip to Florida was Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center. The refuge is huge, over 140,000 acres, consisting of a variety of habitats – coastal dunes, saltwater estuaries and marshes, freshwater impoundments, scrub, pine flatwoods, and hardwood hammocks. Winter brings tens of thousands of migratory birds to the refuge to join the resident species making this a mecca for birders. One of the best places for viewing wildlife is the Black Point Wildlife Drive, a 7-mile, one-way gravel road on a dike around several large impoundments.
Northern Pintail drake
I arrived mid-afternoon, and after a quick stop at the Visitor Center, headed to Black Point Wildlife Drive. I must admit, my first reaction was disappointment. One impoundment had quite a few Northern Pintails and some shorebirds, but that was about it. Had I driven all this way for nothing? I continued on and finished the loop road and then decided to head back through one more time, hoping more activity would now be evident as sunset approached. I reminded myself that I have seen quite a few folks do the same thing at my favorite refuge back home (Pocosin Lakes) – drive through in the middle of the day and not see much and then head home wondering where all the birds they had heard about were hanging out. The following scenes took place on two afternoons at the refuge with most of the activity on the first day.
Indeed, the second pass proved more fruitful. A pair of Reddish Egrets had flown in to one impoundment and were starting to forage. I have seen this species only a couple of times before, but remembered how energetic they can be as they scramble around the shallows looking for a meal.
Reddish Egret foraging
Reddish Egret spreading its wings while hunting
In addition to mad dashes and sharp turns, Reddish Egrets also use a “canopy” technique, where they spread their wings and hold still for a few seconds, creating shade which can attract small fish within striking range.
Reddish Egret and reflection
After about 30 minutes watching these two run all over the shallows, they moved to the far side of the impoundment and I drove on.
Another quintessential Florida species, a Wood Stork, greeted me at the next stop. These tall waders have a prehistoric look to them and are always a treat to see, especially in the soft light of late afternoon.
There were many shorebirds out in the impoundments, mostly Dunlin and small groups of Willets.
Northern Pintail flock
Shorebirds flushed by a passing Bald Eagle
A Bald Eagle flew over and both the ducks and the shorebirds erupted from the shallows in circling clouds of wings before settling back on the water.
Wilson’s Snipe at sunset
On my first pass on Wildlife Drive I was pleased to find a Wilson’s Snipe foraging along the edge of a small island adjacent to the road. On my next trip, the snipe was still near the island and was glowing in the low angle light. Usually, I see this camouflaged bird in grasses and marsh edges where a decent shot is tough to come by, but this one was more cooperative as it hunted for aquatic worms and other invertebrates in the shallows just off the edge of the island.
I returned to Merritt Island on my last afternoon in Florida. There were more visitors but fewer birds along Wildlife Drive. A local birder explained that the bays were much higher salinity than normal, perhaps due to a lack of any major tropical systems hitting this part of Florida the last few years. This has caused a reduction in the usual abundance of birds foraging in the shallow marsh impoundments. As the sun was setting, the dreaded no-see-ums (tiny biting flies) started to appear and most of the birders/photographers retreated to the safety of their cars and headed out, leaving me to look for a last few images by myself.
Great Egret at sunset
I stopped at the impoundment where I had seen all the ducks and found a lone Great Egret bathed in soft light.
Roseate Spoonbill and Pintails
Clouds were moving in to the west so my time was getting short. I looked down the marsh and was stunned to see something I had hoped for, but had yet to see in Florida – a Roseate Spoonbill. I must have missed it flying in while I was focused on the egret. I glanced down the road, and to my amazement, there was no one else around. The spoonbill was in perfect light to highlight its gaudy pink colors and I was surprised at how small it looked relative to the ducks feeding around it. I grabbed my gear and ran down the road to get in position and got off just a couple of shots before the sun was swallowed by the cloud bank.
So, my remaining shots were taken in darkening conditions, with the no-see-ums coming out in force (but it was worth it). Roseate Spoonbills are the most brightly-colored of six spoonbill species in the world, and are the only one found in North America, primarily along our Gulf Coast states. Their common name refers to two obvious physical traits: 1) their bright pink color, which is believed to be derived from eating crustaceans (like shrimp and crayfish) that have fed on red algae ; and 2) their unusual spoon-shaped bill.
One of the most distinctive bills of any North American bird
The odd-shaped bill is an adaptation for the bird’s tactile feeding style in shallow waters (which allows it to feed in murkier water than many other waders which rely more on sight to grab their prey).
Roseate Spoonbill feeding
Spoonbills wade in shallow water with their bill down in the water, slightly agape. They feed by swinging their head back and forth and snapping the bill shut when their sensitive touch receptors located inside the bill detect prey. In clearer water, they may chase after fish they see by running and flapping (as was the case in the image above).
I stayed with this bird for about 30 minutes, watching it move hundreds of feet back and forth in the impoundment as it swung its bill in search of food. It caught several fish and some other prey too small for me to see. Roseate Spoonbill populations plummeted in the early 20th century due to hunting for the plume trade and habitat destruction. Their numbers were reduced to only a few dozen breeding pair in Florida, but with protection, they have recovered, much to the delight of nature enthusiasts and photographers.
Sunset at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
I finally had to call it a day as the sky turned a beautiful pink and gray. Even though people said it was not as good as usual, my brief time at Merritt Island had proven it to be well worth it.