I needed an adventure. Not a big one, just something fun for a day. Florida only gets a few pleasant months for exploring before the heat and mosquitoes make my Irish blood miserable, so the clock was ticking.
The Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge has been on my bucket list for years. I’ve been to the Kennedy Space Center a few times. As my husband and daughters marveled at NASA’s engineering feats, I’ve stared off into the swamp and admired the birds and gators. So we packed a cooler and made the two-hour drive north.
At the visitor center, we walked past tourists taking selfies with an orange tree. Songbirds darted about the boardwalk, and a pair of ospreys guarded their nest. Leaving there we drove down a dirt lane that opened up to a vast vista of mangrove swamp and open water. NASA’s launch pad and Vehicle Assembly Building towered in the distance, a stark reminder that though surrounded by wilderness you weren’t far from modern society.
The Refuge is a bird watcher’s dream. My daughter grabbed binoculars and checked off species on her list. I grabbed my camera and clicked in every direction. My husband grabbed his lunch. Everyone was happy!
Merritt Island spans diverse ecosystems—swamp, pinelands, scrublands, and coast. We viewed alligators, shorebirds, passerines, and birds of prey. Florida scrub jays greeted us with their raucous screeches, and a bald eagle swooped just over our heads. An elusive roseate spoonbill tormented me by staying too far away for a decent photograph, but the herons cooperated for the camera. The Black Point Wildlife Drive—a single lane unpaved trail–is the heart of the Refuge. It winds through three miles of wetlands filled with herons, egrets, and waterfowl. But the highlight of our trip was the nest of Great Horned Owls. It was almost dusk when we found them. Two little fuzzball owlets popped their heads up over the side of the nest while Mama (or Papa) sat nearby. I was in heaven.
What a perfect adventure. I needed that day in old Florida–a Florida that existed for eons before the population grew and paved everything around it. We birdbrains still need the wild spaces.