birding to infinity – and beyond (I)

(Header Image:  Egrets and Ibises head for their nightly roost.)

Traffic was relatively sparse as we left the interstate highway at the sign announcing “Disney World!”. We drove past that exit and continued toward Orlando International Airport. It was a Thursday. The glowing green digits of the car’s information panel displayed “4:45 a.m.”. My hand rested comfortably in Gini’s.

Escorted by a couple of huge trucks, we cruised by the turnoff for the airport and left the glow of the Orlando metroplex in our rearview mirror. Morning commuters were beginning to stack up on the other side of the freeway headed for jobs in the city. I sure miss those days. HA-HA-HA-HA!! 

Ahead, darkness. We passed through the marshes of the St. Johns River where ground fog formed a patchwork quilt on either side of the road. The horizon began to lighten, not from the pending sunrise, but due to the need for humans to avoid the dark.

We drove by the roads which lead to Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center. Space – the final frontier. Our goal today was a bit closer.

Crossing the bridge at Titusville over the Indian River, a flashing sign informed us “Black Point Wildlife Drive Closed”. Rain the previous few days apparently caused portions of the road to be covered in water. This had been one of our primary destinations. No worries. Plenty of other spots to explore in the 140,000+ acres of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Our first stop was at the Biolab Road boat ramp. We watched as the sun broke above the far shoreline of Mosquito Lagoon. The lagoon is part of the Indian River and just beyond the shore to the east is the Atlantic Ocean. Before the sun appeared, birds of all sorts were awaking to a new day. Pelicans were already crashing into the water’s surface, gulls were trying to steal breakfast from the Pelicans, small flocks of shorebirds skittered just above the water, an Osprey circled overhead, a Red-bellied Woodpecker “churred” just behind us and a pair of porpoises chased a school of mullet a few yards away.

After enjoying a delightful dawn and since the wildlife drive was closed, we headed for East Gator Creek Road. Good choice. Hundreds of ducks, ibises, egrets, herons, shorebirds and even a pair of American Avocet were just waiting for our arrival. We gawked, we photographed, we oohed, we aahed, we sighed – a lot.

Gini and I are native Floridians. As such, we must have periodic infusions of salt air. I am pretty sure it’s a law.

We paused at a bend in the road with a view of a large section of marsh where plenty of  birds were feeding. Time for some feeding of our own. Gini had prepared her favorite breakfast: peanut-butter and grape jelly sandwiches on cinnamon-swirl raisin bread. Along with a fresh orange, we were fortified for the day’s adventures.

One of the morning’s highlights was watching a Reddish Egret perform his own very special ballet. Incredible spectacle!

We’ll take a mid-morning break and share a few images with you.

The sun makes its appearance rising above the Atlantic Ocean and peeking at us over the Indian River’s Mosquito Lagoon.

Vast shallow-water areas sprinkled with mangrove trees provide a perfect habitat for birds of all descriptions. A Great Egret soaks up the early morning sun’s rays as he prepares to look for crabs and fish all day.

Merritt Island is a magnet for wintering waterfowl and attracts tens of thousands of them each winter. A pair of Northern Shoveler are thankful for a sheltered spot to forage. On the wing, they are sleek-looking and strong, fast fliers.

A Glossy Ibis appears to float as she prepares to make a landing. The sun highlights her mother-of-pearl iridescent feathers.

The most abundant ducks on the refuge this day were Blue-winged Teal. The first image solves the mystery of how they were named. The second image provides a glimpse of a small portion of the teal we encountered. Finally, a pair of male teal escort a female during some tight-formation aerobatics.

Not as numerous, but equally attractive, there were plenty of American Wigeon in the air and on the water.

A pair of American Avocet entertained us with their sweeping motion technique of feeding. As their slim bills move back and forth, they open the bill slightly and scoop up small invertebrates. Soon, their head and neck will turn a rusty brown during breeding season. Handsome birds in any season!

The Reddish Egret goes through quite a routine to obtain a meal. He raises his wings to diminish glare on the water’s surface. This move also provides shade which attracts fish. He will run forward quickly and then suddenly change directions. Finally, he’ll stop and stab at the water and be rewarded with a fishy prize! I got tired just watching it all.

Early birders may not get worms, but we certainly had a wonderful start to our day! Next up – gorging on crab eggs. Don’t miss it!

Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!

Additional Information

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

Florida’s Space Coast

25 Comments on “birding to infinity – and beyond (I)

  1. I was tickled to recognized the egrets and ibis in your header image just from their silhouettes. I’m learning! I was delighted to see your marvelous photos of so many birds that populate our area, as well: the Shovelers, Teal, Reddish Egret, and Avocet. Now that I can recognize those, and now that I know how beauitfully they can be captured with a camera, I’m inspired to work a little harder!

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    • Thank you, Linda!

      It seems each time I encounter a beautiful bird (redundancy alert !), I am inspired to keep trying to do better.

      We had a truly wonderful day in a special place.

      Like

  2. You little ol lovebirds sure were up early. I didn’t know driverless cars had arrived in FL – hence the holding hands whist driving? Anyway you arrived safely! As one of my Mediterranean friends Ivan used to say as he arrived at the Menorca birding spot “ Sorry if I’m a little late but I saw a few accidents through the rear view mirror”.

    Love that photo of the Blue-winged Teal in flight. I know how difficult such a shot can be. And the Reddish Egret looks to be in fine fettle – peak breeding plumage me thinks?

    By the way, my son and tribe are still waiting for their holiday in Disney which they booked long ago with Mr Branson. I think he ran off with the money after he spread the virus. If you see Mr B, can you ask him for our Carl’s money back?

    Now you must excuse me, I must go for my periodic infusion of red wine while I hold Sue’s hand. Bottoms up you both.

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    • I learned to drive with one hand and have not yet broken the habit. Thus, I had to find SOMETHING to do with the free hand.

      I’m always surprised when a photo of ducks in flight is somewhat clear as they seem to fly so fast! Yes, the egret’s pinkish bill base and blue mascara advertises he/she is ready and willing.

      Last I heard, the Branson chap was headed for Mars or some other heavenly body where he plans to use your son’s cash to establish a gambling venue, or something.

      Wine or no wine, the hand-holding is what’s important in life. Take care!

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  3. A nice essay on birder contentment, Wally. I have never been a big fan of peanut butter so I would gladly pass on your breakfast, but had I been the occupant of the back seat I would have enjoyed every other moment of the day. The ballet of the Reddish Egret is always a performance not to be missed and the chorus of calls for encores seems endless. The last time I saw this choreographed frenzy was in the Zapata Swamp on Cuba, where I swear there was a touch of salsa added to the routine. Que tengas un buen día amigo!

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    • “Birder contentment”. That really sums up a visit to Merritt Island, David! After each visit, we sigh heavily and vow to return soon.

      We hope you will consider the lunch offering more favorably.

      I still have not been able to photograph the white morph of the Reddish Egret. They are absolutely captivating to watch!

      El día estaba lleno de asombro!

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  4. Hi Wally and Gini

    What a wondeful area to visit, and your words and images show its magic superbly, Wally. The Northern Shoveler is, of course, a bird that I am familiar with, but always a delight to see. The three Blue-winged Teal in formation is a really great shot, and the same goes for the Glossy Ibis, and the Reddish Egret Sequence.

    I always find myself intrigued by the way that peanut butter is consumed with sweet things over on your side of the pond. We have peanut butter quite often in this household. It is spread on buttered toast, sprinkled with salt and topped with either sliced pickled beetroot (the red stuff) or sliced pickled onions – yummy!!! Lindsay leaves out the pre-peanut butter buttering.

    My previous comments about your header images still apply and are reinforced by this latest offering!

    It seems that all is good with you there. We’re a little under threat at the moment with Ashby de la Zouch – the small town that is home to us – being declared the place with the highest Covid infection rate in the whole of UK just over a week ago, It has now dropped to sixth place, but sixth out of several thousand is still not good!

    Best wishes to you both – stay safe – – – Richard

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    • My ego can’t stand too much more of your accolades, Richard! (But – don’t stop….)

      This refuge is really a special area and it would be easy to spend a week or more there.

      Peanut butter is definitely one of the major food groups around here. Your use of the beets and onion will motivate Gini to experiment once she sees this. Some day, we’ll talk about her sandwich of peanut butter, bologna, pickles, sardines, onions, etc. – all without pregnancy as an excuse.

      That header image is part of a sequence as we watched wave after wave of Great Egret, Glossy Ibis, White Ibis and Snowy Egret move en masse across the marsh at sunset. Quite an experience!

      We hope you and Lindsay remain safe and well.

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  5. Hello,

    Merritt Island was one of my favorite places. Beautiful birds and photos. Love the Reddish Egret.
    Take care, have a great day!

    Like

  6. It’s a wonderful place, especially this time of year. Looks like you had a great visit!

    And yes, that early morning commute is something to miss.

    Like

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