There’s another space in Merritt Island besides Kennedy Space Center worth visiting. Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (MINWR) is a slice of natural Florida. It’s ironic that some of the most pristine ecosystems in Florida surround one of the most secure, high-tech government facilities in the county.
There are over 500 species of animals and 1,000 plant varieties, 15 on the threatened or endangered list, in the refuge. Being on the Atlantic flyway, you’ll see wood stork, roseate tern, piping plover, herons, ibises, snowy egrets, reddish egrets, red-winged blackbirds, and Florida scrub jays. Besides birds, there are many other species of wildlife: green turtle, Kemps Ridley turtle, Atlantic hawksbill turtle, leatherback turtle, loggerhead turtle, southeastern beach mouse, Florida salt marsh snake, eastern indigo snake, American alligator, West Indian manatee, and gopher tortoise, bobcats, and too many more to list.
When it opened in 1963, MINWR faced a challenge. It needed to protect the delicate natural balance while creating a place for outdoor recreation. It also must consider the security of Kennedy Space Center (KSC). For this reason, the refuge is closed when a launch is scheduled.
Before the government took possession of this land, it was mostly orange groves, the remnants of which still produce wild oranges. Another reminder of its early farm culture is the presence of feral pigs found all over the refuge. Don’t get close to them. The tusks on the boars are sharp and deadly.
Pro Tip: As you drive along State Road (SR) 402 in the refuge, you cross SR 3, a Kennedy Space Center entrance for badged employees only. Here you will have a view of the Vertical Assembly Building.
1. The Visitor Center
Start at the visitor center off the main entrance road and view the exhibits about local wildlife. The center also has a bookstore, gift shop, and, most importantly, restrooms, which are few in the refuge. Ask for a free map here. There are also two videos you can ask to view.
Your real wildlife viewing pleasure starts on the boardwalk trail behind the center. The last time I visited with Martin, my partner, there were three baby ospreys in a nest being fed by the parents. The center has a telescope for close-up viewing. We spotted a red-winged blackbird near the butterfly garden, and an egret was fishing at the end of the lake. A bank of Martin houses stands behind the center. We saw a few ripples from an alligator lurking below the water’s surface with only his eyes protruding.
Pro Tip: Stinging nettle grows in the refuge. Don’t touch it; it lives up to its name.
2. The Oak And Palm Hammock Trails
These trails are in upland woods. When you pull into the parking lot, notice the bat house fronting the lot. There are a couple of benches if you want to rest. Vegetation and wildlife on both trails are similar. Palm Hammock Trail is longer and wetter. It loops for 2 miles around the half-mile Oak Hammock Trail, also a loop. Oak Hammock has boardwalks and interpretive signs which make it the choice for all but the most inveterate hikers.
3. Scrub Ridge Trail
On one visit, we set out to find the Florida scrub jay. Scrub Ridge Trail, a one-mile foot trail through Florida scrub maintained by prescribed burning, is the best place to find the rare Florida Eastern scrub jays. You will only find these birds in central Florida. One wonderful trick to lure them is to carry a small recorder with their bird calls. You can download the calls at several birding sites.
A short distance along the trail, we spotted our first flash of blue and gray fluttering in low-hanging branches of a scrub oak. Soon we were surrounded by adults, juveniles, and one baby bird. A unique thing about these birds is that a baby remains around until the parents have more chicks, and then acts as a watchdog for the nest. We saw between five and seven birds. It was hard to get an exact count, as they would flutter under bushes or into trees and then back into view. In fact, they did better than stay in view; they landed on us – on our hats, our shoulders, and even our outstretched hands. What a thrill!
4. Haulover Canal
Haulover Canal has been a passage between Mosquito Lagoon and the Indian River since prehistoric times. Native Americans hauled their dugouts across here. Later, European settlers continued to use it as a crossover for small boats. The first man-made canal was built in 1854 and abandoned when the present canal was built in 1884.
Cross the bridge and turn right to the manatee observation deck, the best place to observe the gentle giants. We visited once near the middle of May, the peak of the manatee mating season. We were rewarded by a milling mating herd. These herds occur as many male manatees pursue a lone female. Not only are there manatees here, but this is a wonderful boating and fishing spot. There’s a porta-potty if you need it.
5. Bio Lab Road
Bio Lab Road is a two-way, unpaved road that winds for 5 miles between Indian River Lagoon on the east and scrub marsh on the west, then exits on SR 3. You’re in birder’s heaven.
Turn right on the road that loops for two-thirds of a mile to Indian River Lagoon and watch for alligators, otters, and possibly those elusive bobcats. We saw a beautiful great southern white butterfly. One volunteer told us there had been a sighting in 1999 or 2000 of a radio-collared, juvenile male panther.
A definite thrill is an osprey sighting. You see them perched in dead trees along the lagoon. We watched one swoop, catch a fish in his beak, and return to the nest to feed hatchlings.
You could see manatees and dolphins here. As you approach the end of Bio Lab Road, you’ll see a boat launch. You keep left and come out on SR 3 by an old yellow building.
Turn right on SR 3. You’ll pass Sendler Educational Facility to your left. In the 1800s, this was Dummett Groves. Douglas Dummett developed the Indian River Orange. There’s a parking lot, a pavilion, and a path to the Indian River.
Pro Tip: If you park along the road, don’t go too far onto the shoulder. You don’t want to get stuck.
6. Black Point Drive
Black Point Wildlife Drive is a 7-mile, one-way road with 12 stops. There’s a box where you can pick up a guide as you enter. The habitats differ at each stop. Stop 1 is a good place to look for an American bald eagle. Tall pine trees make perfect nesting places. The marsh provides fish and smaller birds for food.
You’ll see lots of birds and alligators here. They aren’t just at the designated stops, so park where you have room to pull over. Between stops 3 and 4, you can park and walk on the Wild Birds Trail.
Stop 5 is at mudflats where you’ll see shorebirds feeding on bog dwellers.
Stop 6 is a shallow water impoundment maintained at a depth of 6 to 18 inches, so sunlight nourishes the water plants that provide food for the birds that flock here.
Stop 8 offers an important necessity, a restroom. It is also the head of a 5-mile-loop hiking trail back into the swamp, Cruickshank Trail. If you choose to follow it, you will come to an observation tower a short distance from this trailhead.
If you’re watching for that elusive bobcat, your best chance is early morning or late evening.
Between stop 11 and 12 is another place to watch for eagles. As you exit, there’s a box to deposit your pamphlet.
Pro Tip: Check out Pine Flatwood Trail, the refuge’s newest trail to view more highland wildlife. If you’re lucky, you may spot a bobcat.
7. Wild Bird Trail
This’s a great quarter-mile walking trail between wetlands and tidal lagoon. There are two observation blinds. The combination of habitats attracts different kinds of birds. We found roseate spoonbills, herons, ibis, black neck stilts, and dozens more.
8. Canaveral National Seashore
Pay the toll and head for the white sandy beach. You’ll see small pull-offs called vistas where you can park and look for wildlife. The eight vistas are numbered. 1 and 2 on the left looking out over the water and marsh are still scrub terrain, so watch for Florida scrub jays.
Vistas 4 and 5 are on the right looking over water and marsh towards the Space Center with good views of the VAB and launchpad 39.
At parking lot 1, there’s a boardwalk with a handicapped access ramp and steps. A chemical toilet is located here and at most of the parking lots. From the top of the boardwalk, you have splendid views of Kennedy Space Center.
Whether you hike or just drive, the refuge is a treasure for all.