Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Photographing Birds in Florida: Merrit Island National Wildlife Refuge

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge has become my favorite place to photograph wildlife in Forida. I have photographed in the Everglades, Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, St. Augustine Alligator Farm, Fort Desoto State Park in St. Petersburg and many other Florida sites. All offer their strengths, but my trips to Merritt have been the most consistently productive photographic trips I've taken.

My advice is when you enter the refuge go to the Visitor Center and find out which roads are open and which are closed. You can also ask them about birds or wildlife spotted in the area recently. There is a quarter-mile walking path (boardwalk) behind the center which will take you to a pond and prairie area. I have never had a great deal of luck in spotting birds on this walkway (though there may be some osprey nesting at certain times), but I have photographed butterflies at certain times of the year.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is on the same island as Cape Kennedy and thus is closed when shuttle launches occur and when they return to the Florida landing site, but these are rare (and will be more so in the future). The most popular bird photography site on the refuge is the Black Point Wildlife Drive. This one-way road takes you on a winding five mile journey throughout the refuge. Along the drive you will pass freshwater marshes, shallow saline beaches, and (depending on the tide) various depths of water. The result is often a plethora of wading and shore birds. The birds encountered depends on time of year (whether migrants are present or not), time of day (early morning and late evening usually the best), tide changes (depth of water determines which birds can feed there at any given time). At time you will have water on both sides of the road and something to photography on both sides. While it is a one-way road which is rather narrow there are pull-offs at intervals and even in the in-between areas if you pull over to photograph, other cars can get by.

About two-thirds of the way through there is a pull off area with restrooms, an elevated Observation deck and a five-mile loop hiking trail (the Cruikshank Trail). I have never hiked the entire trail, but often hike short distances to "stretch my legs".

As you near the end of the drive, you will encounter a fork in the road. To your left is L-Pond Road and to the right is the road to the exit. IF L-Pond is open, take it. You will wind got another two miles or so. Here the road is not paved and is very narrow; there are places where two cars can barely pass each other (L-Pond is NOT one-way and sometimes fisherman enter and are driving toward you). Usually you can see each other coming and one of you will find a wider area to pull over to let the other pass. Along this road, there are many instances where there is water on both sides of the road. L-Pond is open about half the time I visit the island. If closed just follow the right fork to the exit to the Wildlife Drive.

Another site where you can photograph from your car is Biolab Road. This is a three mile road which runs along the edge of Mosquito Lagoon (on your left) and other fresh-water ponds on your right. I have spotted shore birds along the Lagoon shore and wading birds in the freshwater ponds.
This used to be my favorite site (it is less-traveled by regular tourists), but it seems that recently its
productivity is down. Near the end of the road you can see the launching pads for the Shuttles.
Perhaps my favorite photography road now is Peacock Pocket Road. It is a sand (and often poorly maintained) road which winds for seven-miles around the edges of a bay called Peacock Pocket. It is a very narrow road and is not usually heavily traveled. This is an area where two cars will often have very limited space to pass (often one will have to find a "pull out" and wait for the other). In recent years this has been my best source of photos. One time when I took the seven-mile drive and counted over 80 alligators sunning themselves along the canals that you drive by. I often take a couple of hours to make one trip along this trail. To access this road, after crossing the drawbridge from Titusville and passing the entrance to the Wildlife Refuge, turn right on the first road on your right.

For those inclined to hike and photograph there are some walking trails that you may wish to try (I do NOT count myself among those who like to hike and photograph). Again consult the map to locate those trails.
I have spent many hours exploring and photographing this site....for photography it truly is an island with Merritt!! Have a blast.

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