At The Edge Of The Final Frontier

The transition from night into day is a subtle process. Our eyes perceive only that which artificial illumination permits. Beyond the edge of the bright headlamps of the car is – nothing. Just a few minutes ago, there were things familiar to us bathed in the glow of their own artificial lighting. Traffic lights, a gas station, hotel, shopping center, airplanes on approach to a multicolored-lit runway. As we zipped eastward to embrace the dawn, we traversed a vast marsh. Peering through the side window revealed – the bottom of an inkwell. Soon, shadows took shape on all sides. In front of us was a barely perceptible line of dark blue. Another mile and below the dark blue was a lighter shade of blue with a very pale pink border. An orange glow began to consume the center of our field of forward vision and almost immediately we could see that sliver of star which warms our planet to a perfectly habitable degree.

Today we were exploring the northern reaches of the Indian River. (See the previous post, Learning Something New, for what we found to the south.) The primary target of our adventure is the vast Merritt Island National Wildlife Reserve and neighboring Canaveral National Seashore. Encompassing over 140,000 acres (56,656 ha.), the area has a tremendous diversity of habitat and wildlife. Click on the link under Additional Information below to get a small idea of the possibilities.

Some of this region’s first human inhabitants were the Ais Indians. Primarily hunter/gatherers, the Ais likely had their first encounter with westerners during the 16th century as the Spanish explored and mapped the area. Indeed, the Spanish noted on their maps the Rio de Ais, which probably became River of the Indians and was eventually shortened to Indian River. These native Floridians inhabited the peninsula along with at least five other major Indian nations until contact with westerners brought disease and slavery to the territory. This and continued warring with neighboring tribes contributed to the Ais’ demise and the last record of them was in the early 1700’s.

Fast forward two-hundred years. After the end of World War II, America was developing long-range missiles and needed a place larger than White Sands, New Mexico for testing. The Atlantic Ocean is pretty big. At the time, not much of anyone was interested in living along the mosquito-infested upper reaches of the Indian River. Thus, in the area of an old light house at Cape Canaveral, a space program was born.

As we gazed in awe at yet another spectacular sunrise, it was stirring to think about a young Ais armed with his spear tipped with a hook carved from a deer hoof, pulling a fat mullet from the water just as the same orange ball broke this same horizon. The bright orb matches the color of the powerful rocket thrusters which carried the first humans to our moon, launched from this spot. Thinking of both events makes me feel humble.

The sun was up. There were birds to be seen. Fortified with one of Florida’s juiciest oranges and a swig of hot coffee, we saw birds. Lots of birds. Alongside the Atlantic Ocean, Merritt Island Refuge is dotted with marshes, ponds, stands of hardwood and pine, hammocks and beaches. Paradise for migrating as well as resident birds. Paradise for birders, too!

In a place such as this, a single day cannot possibly do justice to all that can be seen here. I guess we’ll just have to keep returning. A few of the highlights: 72 total species observed, 40+ Blue-winged Teal, 60+ Northern Shoveler, 300+ Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Mottled Duck, American Wigeon, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, Hooded Merganser, 250+ Snowy Egret, 300+ White Ibis, 40+ Roseate Spoonbill, 3000+ American Coot, 70+ American Avocet, 50+ Yellowlegs, 100+ Dunlin, 50+ Long-billed Dowitcher, 500+ Tree Swallow and 4 Reddish Egret. An embarrassment of birding riches.

Yeah. We’ll be back.

 

Even in non-breeding plumage, American Avocet are simply beautiful. They will sometimes hold just the tip of their bill in the water and filter small morsels, or probe deeper along the bottom as they sweep their bills back and forth.

American Avocet

American Avocet

American Avocet

American Avocet

 

It is estimated there are fewer than 2,000 pairs of Reddish Egrets remaining in the U.S. This large egret has both a dark (reddish) and white form. No matter what color it is, it’s feeding behavior is quite distinct. The bird will run through shallow water hoping to scare a fish, walk slowly and reach out with one foot and “stir” the mud, stand still with wings outstretched to provide shade for fish, spin around in one spot to try and scare up a meal or hop up out of the water entirely and splash back down. These guys are a lot of fun to watch.

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret

 

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret

 

The Snowy Egret may not go through quite as many antics as her big red brother, but even on a bad hair day she gets the job done.

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret

 

Some of our winter visitors, the Hooded Merganser and family, enjoy the warm shallow waters of the Sunshine State.

Hooded Merganser

Hooded Merganser

 

A pair of Lesser Yellowlegs surprised me by jumping up from the mangroves and I was only able to snap a quick shot of their departure.

Lesser Yellowlegs

Lesser Yellowlegs

 

Not a clear photograph, but I’m happy to get any shot of a Northern Harrier during the short time they visit us in the winter. This one has what appears to be a shorebird leg in his beak.

Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier

 

Sunlight reveals a whole spectrum of colors on the Northern Shoveler. Another migrant, it’s hard to miss this bird’s unique silhouette.

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler

 

This Forster’s Tern objected, loudly, to me standing along the shoreline snapping photographs. I finally took one of HIM and he left me alone.

Forster's Tern

Forster’s Tern

 

The large Royal Tern can be identified from the similar Caspian Tern by an orangish (instead of deep red) bill and a mostly clear (instead of black) forehead.

Royal Tern

Royal Tern

 

Even in winter, butterflies abound. This Great Southern White will only live five or six days. There were so many in some areas it looked like snow falling.

Great Southern White  (Ascia monuste monuste)

Great Southern White (Ascia monuste monuste)

 

American White Pelicans exhibit “cooperative feeding”. They work together to “herd” a school of fish to a certain area and almost in unison plunge down to fill their large pouches. It all resembles a choreographed ballet. Minus the swans.

American White Pelican

American White Pelican

 

Roseate Spoonbills are pretty at any time of year. However, as breeding season nears all their colors become deeper and their head and breasts take on additional markings.

Roseate Spoonbill

Roseate Spoonbill

Roseate Spoonbill

Roseate Spoonbill

 

Banded Water Snake is on the lunch menu for this Great Blue Heron. The big bird tries to kill the snake by bashing it on the ground before swallowing it whole.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

 

In the middle of a construction equipment storage yard, we spotted a Great Horned Owl sitting on a nest atop a utility pole. Soon there will be the pitter-pat of little talons.

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

 

We apparently found a favorite wintering spot for the Northern Pintail. Over 300 birds were busily feeding in the late afternoon in a large open water area. A very handsome bird.

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail

 

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail

 

A Ring-necked Duck, riding low in the water, doesn’t see what’s so special about these Pintails.

Northern Pintail, Ring-necked Duck

Northern Pintail, Ring-necked Duck

 

As we reluctantly headed home at the end of the day, a wintering Horned Grebe popped up from a small bay to say good-bye.

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe

 

The last rays of the sun warmed a group of Black Skimmers on the beach all huddled together for the night. Sounds like a good idea.

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer

 

We hope to return soon for another overdose of birding! Whether you are interested in history, enjoy birding or are fascinated with space exploration, visit Merritt Island if you possibly can!

(Huh? I don’t know. Soon. — Gini is punching me in the side wanting to know when we can go again. Sigh.)

 

Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!

 

Additional Information

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 38 Comments

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38 thoughts on “At The Edge Of The Final Frontier

  1. Among so many great shots, thank goodness I don’t have to choose a favorite. But if I did, I guess my top three would be the Great Horned Owl in its nest, the Great Blue Heron with the Banded Water Snake, and the Snowy Egret with that fish.

    Your lyrical writing really sets us up for the photos.

    • I appreciate y’all wading through that prose to get to the pose! It’s neat getting a shot of animals with prey and I’m very grateful for me most often used tool: l-u-c-k.

      Love ya!

  2. Ah . . . funny that I’d use that “embarrassment of riches” phrase in a comment on your most recent post. I see in this one (which I read after the other one — make sense?) that you use the phrase “an embarrassment of birding riches.” Pretty inescapable observation, I guess, given the nearly incredible bounty.

    • Sometimes a phrase just applies to the situation so I tend to overuse them! Merritt Island has become one of our favorite destinations.

  3. So many beautiful photos I don’t know where to start! You had me at the Avocet!! lol I’ve always wanted to see and photograph one. The Reddish Egret fishing made me laugh and reminded me of the Tri-colored (Louisiana) Heron’s style of fishing. Very entertaining. Sorry I’m so late stopping by. This once a week blogging thing may not be working out for me. :/

    • We hope you’re enjoying a peaceful Easter weekend, Gail. Thank you so much for the wonderful comments! It was nice to have Avocets closer than a mile for a change. Don’t stress over blogging – there are too many other things to stress about!

      🙂

  4. What an amazing set of images and brilliant post. I thoroughly enjoyed reading and looking at that.

  5. HI Wally I am back again as promised. I love the way the Royal Tern is posng for you on that stick, the Spoonbill is so beautiful and you have caught it well in flight, Love the way the Pelican help each other to catch fish, the Pintail is a truely beautiful duck. We have them in N.I in the winter time but would rarely get them so cloes to take a images as good as your one here. That was a great caputure of the heron and snake and a lovely image of the Snowny Egret’s catch. Well I hope you and Gini are out birding this weekend and having a marvelous time.

    • Margaret, we really appreciate you returning to make even more kind remarks! It’s a fun place to visit and offers rare opportunities to get closer than normally possible to the bird life. (Even when not out birding, Gini and I manage to have a marvelous time!)

      We wish you all the best as Easter approaches. Have a blessed day!

  6. Really nice bird photos! My favorite is the Reddish Egret! What a stunner!

  7. We are going to Merritt Island soon, I hope we are not too late to see even a small fraction of the beauties you two saw and so beautifully captured. I have not seen an avocet since we wintered in California and Oregon … Did not even realize they were here in Florida. Lovely post (I don’t guess you have to be prodded into going back really!)

    • Hi, Sallie! The good news is that there is always something good to see at Merritt Island! The avocet winters in Florida then travels back to the mid-west and west to breed. I look forward to hearing about your visit to Merritt Island!

  8. Great shots – almost a year since I saw my first American Avocet – I love the picture of Skimmers!

    Cheers – Stewart M – Melbourne

    • Thank you, Stewart! I keep hoping to find a migrant avocet still in breeding plumage. Maybe this year?

      It’s almost a weekend again – have a good one!

      (Enjoyed your largest flower post!)

  9. Amazing shots!

  10. Thanks for another fascinating post and more beautiful photos. I really liked the different lights you caught along with the birds. It must be a very interesting place to visit – I have just been listening to an audio book by Gene Kranz about his time with the space program – so it was especially interesting to see this beautiful birding place so close to that. It is very interesting to see so many different ducks in similar habitat to both shorebirds and terns. Ducks around here seem to prefer ponds and lakes rather than coastal habitat.
    I had a chuckle about your “use” of bottle-brush flowers in your younger days. Florida seems to be quite similar in climate to that around here. I am sorry I never got down that way when I visited the US many years ago.

    • Thank you, Mick! That area is a major migration destination for wintering waterfowl so it’s especially fun to visit during the winter.

      Take care.

  11. Love the ‘warrior’ egrets – red and snowy – with their ‘hackles’ up!

  12. I just love the title of this post, Wally, the relevance of which is only apparent after one’s read your fascinating introduction!

    I think that you’ve presented us with one of your best-ever posts for interesting birds and fabulous images. From your description, I’d love to sit and watch a Reddish Egret looking for its breakfast! The first Snowy Egret image had me grinning from ear to ear.

    It’s great to see that you are somewhat accomplished at flight shots too! I’m very envious of your skills. Mind you, I suspect that the light levels tend to be a bit kinder in your neck of the woods than in dull old England!

    Best wishes to you and Gini. I look forward to your next visit to Canaveral. – – – – Richard

    • I’m not certain everyone may understand the significance of the title, Richard, but as long as you and I do, that’s fine!

      Thank you so much for the really kind words. I really appreciate it.

      If Gini has her way, we’ll be returning soon. Ouch! (She’s twisting my arm again so I reckon we’d better go pretty soon.) 🙂

  13. HI Wally Firstly many for visiting my blog and but will come back and complet mcomments. Much appreciated. very interesting hearing about the history of this region. It is the most wonderful area to go birding, so much Gina is right, go back soon please. Now all your photographs are marvellous (as usual). I had to look up for your American Avocet differed from the European one. Both very elegant birds.Wally. I have to stop now as I am on holiday and being called for but will be back to continue my comment.

  14. Wally, Your preamble through time and motion was very thought provoking, and as usual highly entertaining. One can only imagine what the Ais would make of our space rockets and binoculars.

    You have some superb light in those early morning pictures, the avocets and the Snowy and Reddish Egrets. The ones with the spooky hair resemble me after a windy day’s birding along Pilling Shore, and as Sue might say “like you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards”.
    I love the Spoonbill and Pelican shots, especially the Roseate Spoonbill with that huge “silver” spoon.

    Here are my next questions. The Great Horned – I take it that the nest you show is an ex-Osprey or Bald Eagle nest? Am I right in thinking that Great Horned Owls would not construct such a nest? Also, do Bald Eagles predate Great Horned Owls? I’m assuming it would not be the other way around?

    The Pintail is indeed a beautiful duck but so wild here that pictures like yours are well-nigh impossible unless in a wildfowl collection – not the same thing at all.

    I really think you should take Gini to Merritt Island again. I also think you do not need convincing or a dig in the ribs!

    • I appreciate your continued flattery, Phil! That place is so nice it even provides great light for taking photos, or your money back. 🙂

      You are correct about the Great Horned Owl nest. They typically use a nest built by another species and this one looks sturdy enough to have been a Bald Eagle nest. They will often use man-made nesting platforms built for Ospreys as well as cavities (such as those excavated by Pileated Woodpeckers). The breeding season for the Great Horned Owl in central Florida is roughly from October through June and the Bald Eagle is about 30 days later. So they can definitely overlap.

      Those were the first Pintails I’ve had an opportunity to photograph. They were unusually easy to approach as the open water of that area is spread on both sides of the road with steady (but very slow-moving) traffic and there were literally thousands of other species in fairly close proximity.

      Your are right about not needing a dig in the ribs but convincing my Loving Sweetheart of that fact may be futile.

      The sun has broken through the clouds after an all-day rain so a birding trip for early morning is planned. Take care, my friend!

  15. Oops…I meant Reddish Egret.

  16. Fantastic post. The Reddish Heron is something to see!

  17. Such wonderful images — I adore the one with the GBH and his catch of a snake! And a wonderful overview of the gorgeous area — my birthplace! (Father = NASA.) Before Disney arrived, panthers roamed freely…

    • Hey! Long time no see! Thanks for dropping by. It’s a special area for sure. Not likely any panthers still there but Bobcats abound! Hope all is well and that your week will be terrific!

  18. beautiful birds. would love to watch a reddish egret some day! love those fine pintails. and i liked how you connected back a few hundred years, standing by that river. 🙂

    • The Texas Gulf Coast may be home to 30-50% of the global Reddish Egret population. If you get a chance to visit one of the sanctuaries there you might get your wish! Aren’t the pintails good looking! Thank you so much for your visits and consistently kind comments!

  19. Hello Wally,
    Another beautiful post with outstanding pictures!
    I love them all but the heron with the back wind in its feathers is just fabulous!
    Thanks for that bit of history, you really live in a very interesting area!
    Keep well 🙂

    • Hi, Noushka! Thanks for stopping by. One could spend all day in just one spot at that refuge and be happy. There is so much to see! We really look forward to returning soon. We hope your week is off to a great start!

  20. Love the shot of the Great Horned Owl. That’s an impressive nest! You captured lots of colors on the Northern Pintail and Shoveler. Beautiful butterfly, too.

    • That nest looks like it may have once belonged to Bald Eagles. It’s amazing how many colors a little sunlight will highlight on a bird! We certainly appreciate your kind comments!

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