Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
is set on 140,000 acres east of Titusville on Merritt Island. It borders the Canaveral National Seashore
to the north and it borders the Kennedy Space Center
to the south, which is adjacent to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Both the Mosquito Lagoon and the Indian River run through the refuge. Public access to all these areas is controlled in various ways and at various times, this makes the refuge a very substantial area of relatively undisturbed wildlife habitat.
The Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge provides a range of seven different habitats, from coastal dunes, saltwater estuaries, freshwater impoundments and marshes, to dunes, hardwood hammocks, pine flatwoods and scrub. Because of this the Wildlife Refuge is rich in over 1000 species of plants, and home to 117 species of fish, 68 amphibians and reptiles, 330 birds, and 31 mammal species; 21 of these species are listed as endangered either by the state of Florida
or by the US government. Some of the endangered species are: West Indian Manatee, Wood stork, Roseate Tern, Florida Salt Marsh Snake, Eastern Indigo Snake, Florida Scrub Jay, American Alligator, Green, Leatherback and Loggerhead Turtles.
The northern half of the refuge, about 20 miles of the 35 mile long refuge, is open to the public, subject to the needs of NASA. Many recreational opportunities are offered at the Refuge which is opened during daylight hours only. They have bird and wildlife observation decks, or blinds, that are coved and camouflaged so you can take pictures, a wildlife drive and a manatee observation deck, you can fish, hunt and go boating, certain youth organizations are allowed to camp here but camping is not open to the public. They have a visitor Information Center about 4 miles east of Titusville.
Black Point Wildlife Drive
The best place to see wildlife is along the Black Point Wildlife Drive. This seven mile one-way self-guided auto drive tour follows a dike road around several shallow marsh impoundments and through pine flatwoods. There are several stops, which are described in a brochure that can be picked up at the Visitor Center or the entrance to the drive. These provide an excellent place to see waterfowl, wading birds and shorebirds. Many alligators sun themselves on the banks there. River otters, bobcats, various species of snakes, and other wildlife may be visible as well. The Cruickshank Trail and Tower are located at stop #8 on the drive; the tower offers an amazing view of the surrounding marshes. Driving time is approximately 40 minutes and the entrance in a mile east of the intersection of SR 402 and SR 406.
Typically the best times to view wildlife is when they are feeding which is one to two hours after sunrise and one to two hours before sunset.
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge a major destination for birders from all over the world. There are over 320 species of birds that have been documented here. Hundreds of thousands of migratory birds use the refuge for the entire winter season or as a temporary rest stop, which creates excellent birding opportunities. During warmer months resident wading birds, shore birds, songbirds and raptors can be seen in refuge marshes, open waters, and forested uplands. Not all birds use marshes so a series of trails have been routed through the major habitats of the refuge. Florida scrub jays an endangered species found only in Florida are some of the main attraction here. The two trails that are the best place to see Florida scrub jays are Scrub Ridge and Pine Flatwoods. There are an estimated 3,000 scrub jays in Florida today. The Hammock Trails both Oak and Palm also provide great birding locations for a variety of songbirds and raptors. One thing the visitor center does is keep a list of recent sightings list, so if you're looking for a particular bird, you can always check it to see if one's been sighted recently.
Another endangered species that frequent the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge are West Indian manatees. A manatee observation deck is located on the northeast side of Haulover Canal, on SR 3, and is the best spot to see manatees. Interpretive panels are available at the platform to provide information about these endangered species. There are approximately 3,000 West Indian manatees left in the United States.
Nearby Canaveral National Seashore
The refuge borders the Canaveral National Seashore which is the longest section of undeveloped beach on Florida's Atlantic coast, it's this lack of development that makes these beaches prime for sea turtle nesting. The refuge is one of the most important sea turtle nesting beaches in the United States, over 1,600 loggerhead sea turtles nest each year. Green sea turtles and leatherback sea turtles also nest on the beach, although not as many.
Hiking in the refuge is best in the fall, winter and early spring, as the summers are extremely hot. There is a 1/4-mile boardwalk behind the visitor center that offers a short walk with interpretive panels. Two other trails are the Oak Hammock Trail which is 1/2 mile and has interpretive signs that explain the ecology of the hammock's plant community, then there's the Palm Hammock Trial which is 2 miles long.
Boating & Fishing
Boating is permitted on the waters around and within the refuge, and provide another excellent opportunity for observing the wildlife; there are facilities for launching pleasure boats at several places and there are also several areas of protected water that provide ideal locations for canoeing, kayaking, and small open boats.
Fishing is allowed in the Indian River Lagoon, Mosquito Lagoon, Banana River Lagoon, mosquito control impoundments and interior freshwater lakes. You can also collect crabs, clams, oysters, and shrimp. The Kennedy Space Center has some restricted areas and for several days before Shuttle launches
the normal restricted areas are expanded which temporarily closes certain waters that are normally open to sports fishing. Pay attention because if you're found in these restricted areas you are subject to arrest. You'll need a special permit to fish at night, which is allowed by boat only, and to commercial fish, all Florida fishing regulations apply.
Hunting waterfowl is allowed on the refuge from mid-November through mid-January on Saturdays, Sundays, Wednesdays and federal holidays; they also have an early teal season for a week in late September. The Visitors Center has a hunting brochure that tells you all about refuge regulations; you can also get permits there.
The Refuge has some significant waterways surrounding it. The Mosquito Lagoon borders the Refuge to the east on the other side of it you'll find the Canaveral National Seashore. The Mosquito Lagoon covers about 21,000 acres in the refuge; it's about half shallow water flats with water depths of less than 3 feet. This is a great place to fish and is billed as the Redfish Capital of the world; it also serves as a juvenile sea turtle nursery. It connects to the Indian River through the Haulover Canal and is south of the city of New Smyrna Beach
The Haulover Canal is a deep water canal that links the Indian River on the west and Mosquito Lagoon on the east. It was dredged in the late 19th century so boaters wouldn't have to take a natural channel part of the way and then haul their boats over land.
The Indian River Lagoon is located on the west boundary of the Refuge. Shiloh Marsh Road provides access to the Lagoon bank along a 12 mile stretch in the northeast section and offers good bird-watching, canoe and fishing however, a sports fishing permit is required.
The southern end of the Refuge is boarded by the Banana River, a 10,600 acre open water area. Most of the river has been a closed to motor boats for the protection for manatees since 1990 giving it the nickname the "no motor zone", and there are signs that mark this boundary. Access to the no motor zone is very limited and restricted to two locations from the south because the shoreline on the north, east, and west sides are within the "security area" of the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Even so it's become a popular destination for paddlers and fishermen, because it's open water it can get very rough during high winds so be sure to plan your trip accordingly.
The entire Refuge has over 650,000 annual visitors and if you're vacationing in Central Florida at the Orlando attractions
, your just 45 minutes away from the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, which is a great place to spend the day getting back to natural Florida.
Visitor Information Center
The Visitor Information Center is a great place to get acquainted with the refuge before heading out to enjoy it. They have Exhibits, movies, programs and a variety of realistic displays that describe the habitats and wildlife on the refuge. The center offers many educational resources at the bookstore and is open all week. You can get snacks and water there before heading out on a trail and restrooms are located there.
The refuge traces its beginnings back to the development of the nation's Space Program. In 1962, NASA acquired 140,000 acres of land, water, and marshes adjacent to Cape Canaveral
to establish the John F. Kennedy Space Center. NASA built its launch complex and several other space-related facilities, but didn't need to develop the whole area. So on August 28, 1963, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service entered into an interagency agreement with NASA to manage all lands within the Kennedy Space Center that are not currently being used for NASA/KSC operations and Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge was established. In 1975 a second agreement established Canaveral National Seashore. This unique area is a prime example of how nature and technology can peacefully co-exist.
By Beverly Martinez-Collins – PlacesAroundFlorida.com