Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge Overview
Merritt Island's pristine beaches, coastal wetlands, and mangrove-lined estuaries teem with wildlife, including 16 threatened or endangered species. Designated a buffer zone for nearby NASA in the late 1950s, this windswept barrier island is ringed with dunes and provides sanctuary for 1,045 species of plants and 310 species of birds. Sea turtles lay their eggs here; oysters, clams, shrimp, and crabs flourish; and snowy egrets, southern bald eagles, West Indian manatees, peregrine falcons, and eastern indigo snakes find a safe home.
Native Americans, attracted by the island's temperate climate and abundant water life, were the first to settle. Spanish colonists claimed the land in the 16th century, followed by Britain in the 18th century, but obdurate Indians and overwhelming saltmarsh mosquitoes made the area less than welcoming. Some development occurred in the 19th century with the planting of orange groves, but their eventual failure left the island in its natural state once again. Today the land is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in cooperation with NASA. It comprises more than 57,600 acres, including 24 miles of undeveloped beach and wetlands.
Pick a Hike
Numerous hiking trails wind along the seashore and through the refuge. The Cruickshank Trail's observation tower gives hikers views of the marshes and a photography blind gives shutterbugs a place to snap a memento of the plentiful birds. The Palm Hammock and Oak Hammock trails are short jaunts through wet sub-tropical forests and open marshes. Castle Windy and Turtle Mound take in shell middens (piles of discarded oyster and clam shells) left by Timucuan Indians.
Paddle the Estuaries
Estuaries, where fresh and saltwater meet, nurture a variety of wildlife. When you paddle carefully through the numerous Merritt Island estuaries, you might spot large predators hiding in the marshes, grasses, and shallow waters, hungry dolphins, nesting birds, and adolescent turtles. Red, White, and Black mangroves also thrive; their roots help anchor the soil and prevent erosion.
Take the Black Point Wildlife Drive
This six-mile scenic drive through pine flatwoods and marsh provides plenty of opportunities to view the many species of wildlife present on the island. It is considered one of the top birding destinations in Florida.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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