Don't Wing It Alone:
If a friendly manatee approaches, the Endangered
Species Act lets you touch them with one hand.
Reaching the best vantage points
usually takes an expert
by G.K. Sharman
photos by German Garcia
If youre a birding beginner, it helps to have someone who can explain what those beaked and befeathered things are. One way to get such information is to take a birding tour; we went out into the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida's Space Coast with an expert birding guide.Our tour started at Haulover Canal, a narrow waterway that connects the Indian River and Mosquito lagoons.
A word about the kayaks: Theyre safe, stable and easy to maneuver, even if youve never done it before. And if you fall out -- which wont happen; trust me, I tried to tip the boat over -- the Indian River Lagoon is so shallow youd barely get your knees wet.
Kayaks are a safe and fun way to get where the action is.
The first thing we did was paddle out toward a rookery, or nursery, island. Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is home to more than 300 species of birds, and most of them seemed to be represented on the mile-long spit of dry ground. Our guide, Brenda Smith, pointed out brown pelicans, double-crested cormorants, black-crowned night herons, tricolor herons, great and little blue herons, ibis, various egrets -- a United Nations of nesting birds.
The real treats, however, were the roseate spoonbills, which get their pinkish color from the crustaceans in their diet, Brenda said, and the reddish egret. Both are pretty rare. There are only 450 known nesting pairs of spoonbills in Florida, many of them right in front of us. The reddish egret, hunted to near extinction for its fashionable feathers, is on the federal endangered list.
Roseate Spoonbills enjoying a seafood cocktail.
Back on shore were a pair of black vultures, while an osprey tended a nest atop a channel marker piling.
When we visited the island, it was early in the breeding season; couples were still getting together and only about 3,000 birds occupied the territory. By June, when the babies are hatched, the population soars to upwards of 5,500.
"Then it sounds like a lunchroom full of kindergartners," Brenda said, "all crying feed me! feed me!"
As fascinated as humans can get with the rookery, its important for them to keep a respectful distance, Brenda emphasized. Nesting birds can get spooked and fly away. If the parents are gone too long, the hot Florida sun can actually cook the eggs in the shell. With fledglings, she said, "the sun can boil their brains right inside their skulls."
Besides explaining bird life, a good guide should be knowledgable about other aspects of the environment. For instance, Brenda told us:
- How to tell the difference between the black and red mangroves that cover the shoreline (nope, Im not telling), as well as what the other green, growing things are -- and which ones are natives.
- That fierce-looking gators are really not aggressive unless theyve been fed by humans. They can only eat when their body temperature is between 82 and 85 degrees, which is about four months out of the year. The rest of the time, they live off fat stored under the bony plates along their backs
- That manatees average 1,800 to 2,200 pounds and can live to be 60 years old, if a boat propeller or mean-spirited human doesnt get them. Sometimes the sweet-tempered, slow-moving creatures will come up to the kayak, as they did during the second leg of our tour. If they approach you, the Endangered Species Act lets you touch them with one hand. You cant chase them or feed them, though. By the way, theyre cud-chewers, like cows, and have really bad breath.
Afternoon Fly-In: Brown pelicans congregating by a lagoon.