By Sastry Karra, with editorial support from Frank Gallagher
When it comes to nature photographers, birds are very popular subjects. In NANPA’s Showcase photo competition, birds often generate more entries than any other category. Between bird watchers and bird photographers, you’re likely to run into a crowd any time you visit one of the popular birding hotspots. That’s especially true in places like Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge which is, like many Florida hotspots, a terrific winter birding destination.
Merritt Island NWR
In December 2021, as a part of my winter vacation, I visited Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Titusville, Florida. With COVID restrictions being slowly relaxed after nearly two years of travel interruptions and closures, I expected to see a lot of birds and people but both were more numerous than I ever imagined.
The refuge covers 140,000 acres of land and sits next to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Florida’s largest barrier island. More than 300 species of birds can be found here at various times of the year, along with more than 30 species of mammals and 1,000 species of plants. An exploration of e-bird hotspots in and around Merritt Island shows many bird species are year-round residents and quite a number of interesting waterfowl species spend the winter here.
One big draw is the Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival, held in late January or early February each year, which brings upwards of 1,000 visitors to Merritt Island. The festival went virtual in 2021 and was cancelled in 2022 because of COVID concerns. In 2020, however, 189 species of birds were observed during scheduled festival activities, which included a number of photo workshops. As you can see, there’s a lot here to interest a nature photographer.
To begin your visit, I suggest going to the Visitor Center. There is a one-quarter-mile boardwalk and trail that offers a great views of freshwater ponds, a native butterfly garden, and gets you acquainted with the plant life you’ll see here. Staffers at the Visitor Center can also be very helpful in pointing out where birds are congregating and if any unusual species have been reported. Walking the Visitor Center Trail, I saw a gopher tortoise (the state tortoise of Florida) and a lazy alligator (“lazy” because alligators are pretty inactive when the temperature is below 75 degrees F, as it was that day).
While there are a couple of main roads that go through the refuge, Black Point Wildlife Drive has the premier wildlife observation areas. It’s where you’ll find most of the birds, and most of the people. The drive is built on an existing system of dykes, originally created as mosquito control impoundments. The drive is a well-maintained, seven-mile, one-way road designed to provide visitors with at safe and enjoyable wildlife viewing experience. There are a number of pull off areas to park, as well as a couple of trailheads from which you can venture farther into the Refuge on foot. While on this road, I noticed anhinga, wood storks, herons, ducks, and white egrets.
Working my way along Wildlife Drive, I explored two hiking trails, parking my car at the provided lots. First was the Wild Bird Trail, a quarter-mile loop that gave me a chance to watch waterfowl, raptors, and shore birds. The second was the approximately five-mile-long Cruickshank Trail, which offers many views of wetlands and open water as it loops down the shore of Cow Pen Creek, along the Indian River, and back to the parking lot.
On the drive, I came across a big pond where a group of mallards were happily enjoying the warm sunny day and, to my surprise, all of them had a dip at the same time, showing me their bottoms (LOL).
If you have the time, it’s worth exploring the other trails and roads in the refuge, as well as the adjacent Canaveral National Seashore.
For my next visit, I am planning to go in the spring, before it gets too hot. I am hoping to see the refuge filled with lots of waterfowl babies and, if the temperature is over 75, then for sure some active alligators!
Merritt Island is across the Indian River from Titusville, Florida, about an hour east of Orlando. Titusville has many moderately-priced hotel and restaurant options and makes a good base from which to explore the refuge, as well as visit the Kennedy Space Center.
When planning your visit, it pays to do some homework. You’ll want to avoid particularly crowded times, such as during festivals and rocket launches, as well as any of the managed hunts, which occasionally close parts of the refuge. If you want to really explore the refuge, plan to spend a couple of days observing, hiking, and photographing the abundant birds and views.
Jaganadha “Sastry” Karra was born in India, but left when he was 24 years old. For the past 27 years, he’s worked as an IT professional, and has been living in New Jersey since 2004. During his spare time, he goes outdoors and takes nature photos, especially waterfalls. Along with his wife (who loves hiking), they go to many nearby state parks where he can experiment with different compositions. In the summer, when his friends play cricket, he’s been experimenting with sports photography. Find him on Instagram at @sastrykarra, where he posts most of his pictures. On Facebook, he’s active in some photography forums, like NANPA. “Maybe I’ll see you there!” he says.
Frank Gallagher is a landscape and nature photographer based in the Washington, DC, area who specializes in providing a wide range of photography services to nonprofit organizations. He manages NANPA’s blog.