That a wildlife refuge shares Merritt Island off Florida’s Atlantic coast with NASA’s Kennedy Space Center might seem incongruous.
For decades, NASA has launched one rocket after another deep into space from a massive complex that is about as high-tech as tech gets, while literally down the street is the 140,000-acre Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge – a contrasting world of marshes, woods and waterways that is home to creatures like wild boars and alligators.
Most notably, the refuge is teeming with birds and is a hugely popular birding destination, part of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail.
From the Space Center launch pads rise enormous rockets that draw crowds. Launching from virtually every waterway, tree and marsh in the refuge are myriad bird species that also draw crowds.
Merritt Island, then, is all about flight, perhaps not quite as incongruous as I thought.
I arrived on a recent day as a birder, and I wasn’t disappointed. I began driving very slowly on the 7-mile-long Black Point Wildlife Drive, a mostly dirt road wending its way through terrific, varying habitat. It appeared that virtually everyone else I saw was there to look for birds, too – most were toting binoculars and cameras with zoom lenses.
Pied-billed grebes, common moorhens, kingfishers, anhingas, great blue herons, green herons, boat-tailed grackles. I had a very nice outing going in just minutes.
Blue-winged teal – males of this small duck species have an unmistakable white crescent on the side of their heads – were abundant. I was taking a photo of the teal when another birder approached and asked if I had seen any cinnamon teal. No, I hadn’t, and I had not expected to. The cinnamon teal is a western species. But his question piqued my interest. I checked a field guide, learned that they are in fact seen, if rarely, in the East. Sometimes, I read, one or two show up among blue-winged teal in winter. Hmm. So, following what appeared to be a man-made watercourse in the refuge, I began checking the teal closely. There were dozens of them in this canal-like waterway paralleled by a path.
I came to an observation platform where the birder who asked the teal question was now scanning the water along with another birder. I scanned the water, too, and, wow, no mistaking it, there was a male cinnamon teal. I took photos but the light was so bright and the bird far enough away that all I got were silhouettes or something close to that.
Even when birding in the West, I couldn’t recall having seen the cinnamon teal, so I happily added it to my life list of species seen in North America.