Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Merritt Island NWR, pt. 1

Unfortunately, Maureen and I will not be attending the Space Coast Birding Festival in Titusville this year. We made it last year, and had a really wonderful time attending lectures by the likes of Kenn Kaufman and David Sibley, going on field trips to lands that are normally off-limits, and just generally soaking in knowledge from other birders. We were especially excited by the prospect of (possibly) seeing the mythical Black Rail this year, but by the time we finally got around to registering, that and the other programs that had caught our eyes were already full. Fortunately, Titusville is a mere 2.5 hours north from us, and so we decided that we would drive up and have a look around on our own, since Maureen had a 3-day weekend for MLK day. For those of you are are able to attend this year, hopefully, this and the subsequent few posts can serve to highlight some of the options available to you.

By far, most of our time was either spent in or close-by to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is a massive 140,000 acres and is comprised of myriad trails with a great diversity of habitats. We began with the Scrub Ridge Trail around sunrise, Saturday morning. We hoped that we might come across some Florida Scrub Jays, but were satisfied to find Eastern Towhees, Carolina Wrens, Swamp Sparrows, Savannah Sparrows, American White Pelicans, and a Blue-headed Vireo. This was also the start of our weekend's soundtrack, brought to us by the ever-present Yellow-rumped Warblers and the Gray Catbirds.

Savannah Sparrow

Although we had hoped for Florida Scrub-jays in the scrub habitat, we came up empty. We'd only seen them once before, which was last year at Space Coast Birding Festival. We had taken a guided tour onto restricted NASA land to find them, and we didn't have that option available to us this time around. As we drove from the scrub to the next trail, however, I caught a glimpse of pale blue out of the corner of my eye. I turned the car around right away, and we watched a group of three right from the side of the road. Scrub-jays use a sentinel system, and we were able to see the changing of the guard, as the on-duty jay was replaced by the next shift.

Florida Scrub-jay

A sentinel looking-out for trouble

A Florida Scrub-jay sentinel

Early in the day we decided - either out of hubris or from the sheer variety of birds - that it wouldn't be unreasonable to try for 100 species that day. We stayed on track throughout the morning, too. Next, we stopped in at the Merritt Island visitor's center, and immediately picked up the Painted Buntings at the feeder out back, where they can generally be found this time of year. We also had a White-eyed Vireo, and some American Robins flying overhead. By the time we left the visitor's center, we had already amassed 35 species for the trip, and still had several major areas to survey.

White-eyed Vireo

White-eyed Vireo

Painted Buntings at the feeder

From the visitor's center, we went straight for the Oak Hammock Trails, still buzzing with activity, even though the morning was growing late. We picked up some great songbirds in quick succession: Black-and-white Warbler, Tufted Titmouse, House Wren, and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Farther in, we found a warbler that baffled us for a minute. High up in the canopy, we could just make out white underparts and a yellow face. We tracked it for several minutes before we saw an object plummet straight to the ground. It fell so quickly that it didn't even occur to us right away that it was the warbler. Once it was staring us right in the face, we saw that it was a Black-throated Green, right at the northernmost edge of its wintering range. We don't really chase target birds often enough for me to consider any bird a "nemesis bird," but it had occurred to me that we should have seen one of these before now. We were elated to be able to add this to our day's count.

Black-throated Green Warbler

Several Pileated Woodpeckers were very active for the remainder of our time in the trails, and seemed to follow us through the woods.

Pileated Woodpecker

We grabbed some lunch and ate it in the car, while we parked along a short stretch of shore to survey the gulls and shorebirds. The Ring-billed Gulls mobbed the car once they sensed there was food about. There was also a smaller number of Laughing Gulls, and a couple of sub-adult Herring Gulls. Horseshoe crabs lay strewn along the beach, both alive and dead and overturned. Among the shorebirds we counted Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings, and quite a few Dunlin. Just when we thought the shore was tapped, in flew an adult Great Black-backed Gull. We've seen these on pelagic trips, but never standing, and never directly in front of us. These are impressively huge gulls, towering over the Ring-billeds, and even dwarfing the Herring Gulls. It rested on the water for several minutes before flying back in to bathe in a small puddle.

Great Black-backed Gull

Great Black-backed Gull looking like he's in charge

Bathing in mixed company (w/ Herring Gulls and Ring-billed Gulls)

Dunlin, Sanderlings, and Ruddy Turnstones



Atlantic Horseshoe Crab (Limulus polyphemus)

By 2:15, we had 60 species for the day, and still had Black Point Drive ahead of us. Check back soon to see whether we were able to make our goal of 100!


  1. REALLY interesting post, guy! Maureen--these are amazing photos. Thank you! Also, loved seeing the scrub-jay sentinel!

  2. Can't wait till Part 2. Fascinating read and beautiful pictures!!

  3. Nick and Maureen,
    You can usually see Scrub Jays at Carlin Park here in PBC. They are usually pretty friendly and will come close.
    Great pics! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Thank you for the nice comments! We had a great time. And thank you for the tip, Kelli! Stay tuned for more from this trip =)