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Merritt Island, Wildlife Refuge, Florida Space Coast, Florida, Space Coast, Titusville, ducs, spoonbills, wite Ibis, bald eagles, racoon, bobcat, large mouth bass, bluegills, hike, trail, South America, armadillos, beach, fishing, kennedy space center, alligator, manatee, environmental education, Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge

Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge
Florida's Space Coast
By: Jennifer Harpaz

Florida’s beauty 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 tree.

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, email, or visit

Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge Species Facts

  • 330 species of birds
  • 31 species of mammals
  • 117 species fish
  • 68 species of amphibians
  • 1,024 species of flora
    • Native Species 803
    • Exotic Species 221
    • State Endangered, Threatened, or Species of Special Concern 38


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