More Absolutely Florida     More Florida Wildlife     More Florida Birding     More Guided Tours

If a friendly manatee approaches, the Endangered
Species Act lets you touch them with one hand.
Don't Wing It Alone:
Seek Guidance

Reaching the best vantage points
usually takes an expert

by G.K. Sharman
photos by German Garcia

If you’re 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.

Kayaks are a safe and fun way to get where the action is.
A word about the kayaks: They’re safe, stable and easy to maneuver, even if you’ve never done it before. And if you fall out -- which won’t happen; trust me, I tried to tip the boat over -- the Indian River Lagoon is so shallow you’d barely get your knees wet.

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.

Roseate Spoonbills enjoying a seafood cocktail.
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.

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, it’s 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, I’m 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 they’ve 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 doesn’t 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 can’t chase them or feed them, though. By the way, they’re cud-chewers, like cows, and have really bad breath.

Afternoon Fly-In: Brown pelicans congregating by a lagoon.