Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge
Florida's Space Coast
By: Jennifer Harpaz
and abundance of wildlife doesn’t miss a beat in winter.
A day visit to the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge demonstrates
this, for certain.
The refuge, managed by
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is comprised of 140,000
acres. This expansive open space is conveniently located a short
drive off SR 528, only a few miles from downtown Titusville.
My brother and I took the drive one brisk December day. The
landscape became a pristine wetland as we reached the entrance
of the refuge. The two-lane road was suddenly surrounded by
acres of marshland. Even before we reached the Visitors Center
we were blessed with sights of white Ibis floating casually
in the roadside waters, while brown pelicans soared overhead.
Soon, it was obvious that waterfowl season was upon us. We passed
by large flocks of coots and green-winged Teals.
The Visitors Center is
a fantastic place to start an adventure in the refuge. Within
the center there is a realistic display of some common species
of wildlife that reside in the refuge, including duck, spoonbills,
white Ibis, bald eagle, raccoon, bobcat, and more.
Outside of the center
there is a walkway leading visitors through a pristine pond.
We kept our eyes out for the three resident alligators, but,
instead, witnessed a healthy community of large mouth bass and
bluegills. We walked around to the other side of the pond where
we discovered a lookout point over a large salt marsh, rich
in wetland grass. As we strolled along, my brother spotted a
stunning damselfly, better known as a dragonfly, and a Red Mulberry
My brother and I were
full of energy that day. We were ready to get some exercise
in the “backcountry”. We headed down the main road
of the refuge to locate one of the several trailheads. We decided
to try the Palm Hammock Trail, located a couple of miles from
the Visitors Center. Here, hikers have the choice between two
trail sections, Oak Hammock, which is 1/2 mile long, or Palm
Hammock, the longer version. We decided upon the Palm Hammock
Trail, which took us on a pleasant 2-mile tropical journey.
As the name suggests, the trail winds through a heavily vegetated
hardwood hammock, with constant views of numerous types of trees
and scrubs. The area was covered in oaks flowing with Spanish
moss, various species of palm trees, and palmetto bushes covering
the hidden ground.
As we hiked, we kept a
keen eye and ear for wildlife. Finally, our first wild friend
greeted us at the site of a boardwalk, walking amongst the scrub.
It was an armadillo. Towards the end of the trail, a second
one walked right up to our feet. After meeting them face-to-face,
I felt as if these creatures are gravely under appreciated.
I set out to learn more about them. Consequently, I discovered
that these animals originated in South America. They are, to
my surprise, not marsupials or rodents, nor are they related
to the opossum. They are mammals. They are actually most closely
related to sloths and anteaters. There are twenty species of
armadillos. If you’ve ever seen an armadillo, you know
that they have an outer shell. This shell is made of bone. Their
tails are also covered in bony rings. Armadillos rely on their
speed and their innate digging ability to escape predators and
find food. Their choice of nourishment includes beetles, ants,
plants, and flesh from dead animals. The giant armadillo species
is a farmer’s enemy. They are often to blame for devouring
crops in some locations. Unfortunately, most species of armadillos
are endangered due to development, hunting, dogs, and slash-and-burn
farming. The exception to this fact is the nine-banded armadillo,
which is actually increasing in numbers and has expanded towards
the northern states.
After spending some time
with our unique new friend, we hiked to the end of the trail,
satisfied with our wilderness experience. The air was fresh,
the ground soft, and the views inspiring. There are two additional
trails in the refuge, the Scrub Ridge Trail, a 1-mile loop through
scrub habitat, and the Cruickshank Trail, a 5-mile trail. Each
one is great for hiking or trail running. Speaking of trails…the
refuge is recognized as the gateway to the Great Florida Birding
Trail. This trail system is growing everyday, eventually to
reach across the state.
Exhilarated after our
hike, we headed off to explore more of the refuge. First, we
headed towards the pristine beach, where the fishing is known
to be outstanding. Although we didn’t go all the way to
the beachfront, we had plenty to see along the way. The Kennedy
Space Center is close to the refuge. We kept an eye out for
the shuttle pad to the south. Thrillingly, we spotted it and
felt privileged to be so close.
Next, we headed to Black
Point Wildlife Drive, a 7-mile one-way interpretive loop. As
we crept along the drive we absorbed the natural beauty of the
marshland and hoped to see more exotic wildlife, such as alligator
or bald eagle. We spotted an eagle’s nest atop a tower
built just for the marvelous birds. We had the chance to spot
and watch thousands of teals and coots, and plenty of pintail
ducks. The highlight of the drive was a close up encounter with
a roseate spoonbill, with its bright white feathers and incredibly
unique pink bill.
We never saw an alligator
or an eagle. We were certainly disappointed that we did not
spot a bald eagle. I have heard how they have made an amazing
comeback in Florida. That day, I felt uneasy about the bird’s
stability in today’s delicate environment. That same evening
I heard on the news that a bald eagle had been shot. The bird’s
carcass was found in a private pond next to the road. Later,
it was reported that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation
Commission believed that someone shot the bird from a road.
This is, indeed, a tragedy.
We completed our trip
with a visit to the manatee observation deck at Haulover Canal,
10.5 miles from the Visitors Center. On warm days, mostly in
the fall and spring, large numbers of manatee gather at this
point. It was quite cold the day we visited. We weren’t
surprised that there wasn’t a manatee in sight. They were
probably visiting the extra warm waters near the power plants
further south of the refuge.
It was a fantastic feeling to know that we can live in greater
harmony with nature, even so close to the world we humans have
developed. I left that day feeling inspired to help the refuge
with its mission. Fortunately, there are several ways to get
involved and assist with the operation of the refuge. The staff,
along with Board of Education schoolteachers, is working towards
developing Environmental Education Programs for children. In
addition, the Merritt Island Wildlife Association offers membership,
with benefits, and volunteer opportunities.
For more information,
or to visit, call the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge at 321.861.0667,
or visit http://merrittisland.fws.gov.
Merritt Island Wildlife
Refuge Species Facts