Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Ditching the Mouse for the Birds: A Birding Side Trip from Disney

Posted by Rob Ripma

Earlier this month, I was able to visit Merritt IslandNational Wildlife Refuge for the first time. My wife and I were at Disney World on vacation but set aside a couple of extra days birding along the Atlantic Coast. Merritt Island was the natural choice given everything that I had heard about it from other birders and its proximity to Orlando (~75 minutes away). We were not disappointed!
Merritt Island is One of the Sites on the Great Florida Birding Trail
A Typical Scene at the Refuge
When you visit this refuge, be sure to that your first stop is at the Visitor Center. It is a really cool building, plus their staff is incredibly knowledgeable and provided us with fantastic information about the refuge. As an added bonus, in the fall and winter, the feeders at the center tend to have some Painted Buntings present!

Visitor Center and Boardwalk
After the Visitors Center, head to the Black Point Wildlife Drive for some of the best birding on the refuge. The drive is a one way 7 mile loop that offers tons of opportunities to view herons, egrets, shorebirds, waterfowl, and Osprey. If you are a photographer, this is the drive for you. The birds are so used to the cars along the road that they say very close even when you stop.

Pied-billed Grebe along the Black Point Wildlife Drive
Tricolored Heron along the Black Point Wildlife Drive
Anhinga - One of the Most Common Species along the Wildlife Drive
If you can pull yourself away from the birds for a few minutes, this is also an amazing refuge to view West Indian Manatee. We stopped by the Manatee Observation Deck and didn’t see anything. Luckily, Bob at the Visitor Center had recommended that we stop by the Bairs Cove Boat Launch. We found some manatees immediately and ended up counting at least 10!

For any serious birder, one of the main draws of this refuge is the large population of Florida Scrub-Jays that call this place home. The best place to view this species is along the Scrub Ridge Trail. I saw a couple of Scrub-Jays while I was on this trail, but the mosquitoes were ferocious and drove me back to the car. The best sighting for me along the trail was a Gopher Tortoise that I was able to photograph. It was a lifer reptile for me!

Gopher Tortoise on the Scrub Ridge Trail
While at the refuge, you should be sure to go to Canaveral National Seashore. The fee that you pay to take the Wildlife Drive also covers your admission to the seashore, and you would really miss out on some awesome birding if you were to skip this stop. There are quite a few parking areas that have walkways over the dunes.  These are great places to do an ocean watch from. At this time of year, there are an unbelievable number of Northern Gannets moving offshore.

Northern Gannet from Canaveral National Seashore
If you prefer to get away from the crowds (not that there were that many people on the refuge the days we were there to begin with), head for the Peacock Pocket Road loop. You pass through mostly the same habitats as you do on the Wildlife Drive, but there are hardly any people at this part of the refuge. Unfortunately for us, it was raining the whole time we were on this drive, resulting in very few birds.

Hopefully I have inspired you to visit Merritt Island!  And, if you happen to be in the area in late January, be sure to check out the Space Coast Birding Festival.



  1. It's on my list!! I've had the pleasure of birding Florida, but haven't visited Merritt Island yet. Glad you were able to drag yourself away from the magic of Disney to enjoy the magic of Nature!!

  2. Great post! Glad you found one of the "real" attractions in Florida :-)

    Also, on the way to Merritt Island, you can drop by the Orlando Wetlands Park. During times of low rainfall, that park can be even better than Merritt Island.

    And, if you want to see a Snail Kite, East Lake Toho in Kissimmee is a good place to go. It's about 20 mi away from Disney.

  3. I'll never forget the first time I saw an looked like a submarine.

  4. Rob, it is truly a great place! To date it is no doubt one of my favorite birding destinations. Full of birds and other wildlife and in my opinion, a photographer's dream. Even with my simple camera, I am able to get some pretty darn good pictures!