Merritt Island: Heart and Soul

Part of my soul lives in the mountains. The steepness, the rough and smooth edges, peaks sharp or rounded, a barren summit or a wooded grove on the hillsides, the view, and the breath of fresh air that carries a special taste of true nature. I feel free of the weights I wrap around myself, the ones I didn’t realize were there.

“Mountains inspire awe in any human person who has a soul. They remind us of our frailty, our unimportance, of the briefness of our span upon this earth. They touch the heavens, and sail serenely at an altitude beyond even the imaginings of a mere mortal… They are cruel, dangerous, and possessed of a beauty one can never grow weary of.”
~ Elizabeth Ason, from The Exploits and Adventures of Miss Alethea Darcy

Part of my soul lives in the desert, in the barren rock. When I look out into the wide-open space and gaze at a rock tower rising up into the sky, I just am. Everything is quiet, and I’m just there. The starkness absorbs all the internal moaning and rattling, and all that’s left is the rock, the dirt, the sun, the endless sky.

Gopher Tortoise, Merritt Island NWR 2012

These places speak to me, resonate with me deep inside, and I feel a special sense of completeness when I am there. They feel right, like walking around your childhood home in the middle of the night. You know the exact number of steps without counting, the placement of each table and chair, so that even in the dark you can find your way without tripping. My soul can live in the mountains without tripping all over itself in confusion. Sometimes I feel that I am laying on the floor in the dark, waiting for someone to turn the light on and notice me, quietly moaning. I tend to feel that way most often when I’m stuck in boring, flat places, probably because I find it easier to have adventures when I’m in the desert or the mountains.

When I was heading down to Florida and Merritt Island, I was not particularly looking forward to my time there. Florida is flat, hot, buggy, boring. Coming from a cross-county road trip, camping in Utah and Wyoming and rock climbing in Colorado, Florida was not where I wanted to be heading. And, well, I found that Florida is flat, hot, buggy, and boring. But, to my surprise, I loved it anyway.

Roseate Spoonbill and Snowy Egret
Heading into the sunrise to look for Scrub Jays

I leave bits of my heart everywhere, tucked in with the people and places I go. Quite a bit of my heart is in Ohio, but there are pieces in other states and countries too, in places I have and have not been, in places only seen by those I love.

White Pelicans
Black-necked Stilt
Playalinda Beach, Canaveral National Seashore

And part of my heart is at Merritt Island. There are some places you stay and you know you are home, even if it’s just for a short while. This is one of them. No matter where I travel, I will always remember that place, that time, those people. Especially those people 🙂

Me, Betty, and Connie (refuge volunteers) after kayaking with dolphins and manatees at Merritt Island NWR
Meghan and Angie kayaking at Blue Springs State Park
Patrick. Blue Springs State Park
Patrick and I are expert kayakers, can’t you tell? Blue Springs State Park

Kayaking with manatees

Great Egret on the lookout for idle manatees.
No manatees over here.

Monday I finally took a kayak out to Bair’s Cove boat ramp, the notorious manatee hangout. Those manatees are a brassy  bunch, they just swim right up to you and shove your kayak around like they own the place. I believe there was some, ahem, bedroom activity going on, which is why they were so active this morning. There was a lot of twisting and possibly some shouting going on by the looks of it.

Barbara Manatee (manatee, manatee) / You are the one for me (one for me, one for me) / Sent from up above (a manatee from heaven) / You are the one I loveYes, that is a Veggie Tales song, sung by Larry the Cucumber.  It gets stuck in my head every time I see a manatee, which is not as often as I would like.
I’ve got your nose!
Manatees can hold their breath for up to 20 minutes (according to but typically surface to breathe noisily every 3 to 5 minutes.
To see my video of some manatee action, click here:
Manatee poo floats. And is very smelly. (Max, this picture is for you).

Manatees can grow to be up to 12 feet long, and I think I may have seen a few that were indeed that large. It’s a bit disconcerting to see the real big guys floating around passively under your kayak and then realizing that, if they decided to get at all frisky, you would be taking a dip. But then you could say that you were attacked by a manatee, so it’d probably be worth it.

I’m going that-a-way
If I was a Brown Pelican I’d stand on that rock too.
Sing a joyful noise, all ye pelicans!

Skimming Skimmers and Paddling Grebes

A few weeks ago I took some videos of birds at Merritt Island NWR. Here they are!
This first one is of black skimmers skimming along one of the impoundments. I took this while we were searching for the cinnamon teal. I love watching skimmers as they fly back and forth along the surface of the water, leaving a delicate line where their bill has passed through. Sometimes when I ride my bike along the dike roads I see them flying along next to me over the water and I pretend I can fly too, that I’m skimming along with them in the dusk, writing my story with theirs in straight lines on the water. Then they turn and go out, disappearing into the sunset, and I’m left on the road with a sense that I just witnessed magic.
This second one is of  a horned grebe in winter plumage. I was driving along Black Point Wildlife Drive and spotted him in the water next to the road. One of the volunteers told me that while horned grebes aren’t especially uncommon here in the winter, typically they spend their time out in deeper water. This year they are bucking tradition and coming in close, to the delight of many a birdwatcher. I’m not sure if you can tell, but look for the beady red eyes in its black and white plumage. If it wasn’t a grebe, and therefore cute, the red eyes would be somewhat creepy. I love watching grebes dive– they either dive the typical way, arching their necks and going down head-first, or they lower down like mini-submarines on covert missions to recover fish and other small aquatic life.
Interesting fact(s) of the day: horned grebes regularly eat their own feathers so that there is a matted plug of them in their stomachs. This plug probably acts as a filter, or to hold fish bones in the stomach until they are digested. Parent horned grebes feed feathers to their chicks to get the plug started. The babies are downy and active when they burst from the egg, and can swim and dive within a day. They are also incredibly cute, with little striped downy faces. I’d love to someday watch tiny grebes frolicking in a lake, learning to swim and dive and how to plug up their stomachs with feathers, everything you need to know to be a perfect little grebe.

Defecating River Otter “Made My Day.”

Defecating River Otter “Made My Day” Says Young Woman
Merritt Island NWR, FL—Friday, February 10, 2012: a day that will live in infamy. Well, at least to one young woman. It was on that day that Lauren A. Smith, age 24, saw her first river otter (Lontra canadensis) in the wild, along Black Point Wildlife Drive in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. “I was so excited, I’d only seen them in zoos before!” she gushed.
Resting for the big event
The river otter in question spent a few minutes poking around the edge of the impoundment before it lifted its tail and defecated. It then scampered off into the bushes, but not before Smith managed to snap off a few pictures. “This is why I always carry my camera with me, you never know when you’re going to see a pooping otter,” she said.
Lifting the tail
Smith is a Public Use intern at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, located near Titusville, Florida. Smith, a zoology and English major who graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University, has always loved animals. “I’ve known since 5th grade that I wanted to be a zoologist and work with animals,” she said. “The other kids were going around saying, ‘I want to be an astronaut’ or ‘I want to be a ballerina.’ No one even knew what a zoologist was.”

A birder and ornithologist, she jumped at the chance to internship at Merritt Island. “People come from across the country to see the birds here,” she said. “There are fantastic opportunities to see some fantastic birds.” She admits there was an additional consideration in her internship choice— “Spending the winter in Florida was also pretty appealing.”

Taken from the backseat, before Sam opened the truck door to let me out. That is Sam’s hair and beard in the rear-view mirror, not mine.
Merritt Island NWR is a pretty appealing place to a number of animals, including river otters. River otters are found in many of the wetlands areas of Florida. Ranging over large expanses, up to 50 miles, river otters unfortunately often end up as road kill. They can be active both during the day and at night, and are often found hunting for food along water edges.
Playful hunters, river otters will catch and eat a variety of critters found in the marshes including minnows, catfish, crayfish, mollusks and frogs. Because they have very high metabolisms, an adaption to help them keep warm in the water, they must consume at least 15% of their body weight every day.
Otters can range in weight from 10 to 31lbs, males typically weighing more than females. They have webbed feet and short, thick, brown fur to help keep them warm while in the water. While swimming, they close both their ears and nostrils.
Time to head back to the bushes
“I absolutely love working at the refuge,” says Smith. “Any place where you have the chance to see painted buntings, roseate spoonbills, scrub jays, gopher tortoise, bobcat, and alligators every day can’t be all that bad, right?” she adds with a smile.

Cinammon Teal in Florida!

There has been a Cinnamon Teal at MINWR for the past few days now, and no one really knows what it’s doing here. Cinnamon Teal are normally found in the western part of the U.S., and this time of year they should be wintering in Mexico, Central and South America. According to the Merritt Island bird list, the last time a Cinnamon Teal was seen here on the refuge was in 2000.

I went out yesterday morning with some of the volunteers to see if it could be spotted. We met up with three other birders/photographers, and between the six of us we found it (and by that I mean one of the others found it while I was busy watching the Black Skimmers– pictures to come). I tried to take a few pictures through the spotting scope, but every time I clicked this happened:

The Cinnamon Teal is the one in the middle, with its head underwater.

So I decided to take a video instead, because then I wouldn’t have to worry about my timing. That, and we had to go pick up a fire truck for a school program later that morning, so we didn’t have much time to mess with taking pictures.

The Cinnamon Teal is the reddish-cinnamon colored bird in the middle that keeps putting its head underwater. There are quite a few Northern Pintail swimming about in front of it, and a couple Blue-winged Teal snoozing behind it.  The black on the side is because I took the video through the spotting scope with my little point-and-shoot, and I’m still learning the ins and out of digiscoping (taking pictures with a camera through a spotting scope, i.e. using it as a big lens to get pictures of far away birds that otherwise would be little specs).

I also took pictures of the fire truck, and I got to ride in it. It smelled like smoke, and was basically just riding in a big white truck with lots of extra buttons I wasn’t allowed to touch.

USFWS fire trucks don’t have sirens, because they don’t exactly need them to fight forest fires and manage controlled burns. The animals already know to get out of the way, they don’t need a siren to tell them something’s burning. They’re smart like that.

Cary, a volunteer, demonstrating the fire hose

The kids loved the program, and hopefully they learned a little bit about controlled burns as well as all the animals that depend on scrub habitat.

Some of the school group and a chaperone, their teacher, and volunteers Cary and Betty Salter (in fire-fighting garb) and volunteer Bill Nunn

And we are go for launch

One of the perks of living on Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is that NASA shoots up rockets in your backyard. Tonight I went out and watched the launching of the Atlas V Mobile User Objective System 1 satellite. The MUOS 1 is a military satellite, which will “improve ground communications for U.S. forces on the move” ( from the Kennedy Space Center website).

It’s a pretty spectacular sight, and I managed to get a video. I apologize for the shakiness, I’m not very good at holding still.

Atlas V MUOS1 rocket launch

If you listen closely you can hear the countdown on the radio. There is an AM station that follows the launches and talks directly to the Air Force and NASA people involved with the launch. It’s very interesting to hear what they do to prepare, and to know what’s going on, especially if there is a weather delay, as there was last time I went to watch a launch.

The large building is the Vehicle Assembly Building of the Kennedy Space Center.

Here are some pictures before and after the launch

Greetings from Sunny Florida!

Currently, I am residing in Florida, on the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. I live in the bunkhouse on the refuge, sharing space with four other people. It is a great building, only a few years old, and very comfortable. As far as free housing goes, this is just about as good as it gets. My only gripe is the toilet paper dispenser. I fail to understand why putting the dispenser below the level of the toilet seat is handy. I have to bend over completely, chest touching my legs, and then reach down, hitting my hand (and the tp) on the floor, in order to get some toilet paper. As I’ve been here a month now I’ve perfected my tp grabbing skills and can usually manage to avoid it hitting the floor.
Stupid toilet-paper holder.
 I should probably now also mention that any views expressed here on my blog are my own, and in no way reflect the views of the Student Conservation Association (who placed me in this internship), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (who my internship is with), or NASA. I shall now refrain from making a comment regarding the government and the toilet paper holder placement.
The Vehicle Assembly Building. It’s so tall that when they first built it clouds formed at the ceiling, they had to install fans. I think they used to assemble space shuttles and rockets in there.
Some weird golf-ball thingie, there might be some kind of radar or satellite in there, I’m not sure.
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is a unique place, and one that I am finding myself to enjoy more than I thought I would (I mean, it’s Florida and flat, no mountains, but the awesome birds here make up for it). Originally the 140,000 acres of the refuge were bought up by NASA for the Kennedy Space Center, the majority of the land as a buffer zone around the NASA buildings and launch pads. Eventually U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the National Park Service got involved and turned the rest of the land into Merritt Island NWR and Canaveral National Seashore, which encompasses seven different habitat types: coastal dunes, saltwater marshes and estuaries (that’s two), freshwater impoundments, scrub, pine flatwoods, and hardwood hammocks, all of which contain copious mosquitoes (to which I can personally attest). Canaveral National Seashore is part of the longest stretch of undeveloped beach in Florida, stretching 24 miles down the eastern coast. These areas are home for over 1,500 species of plants and animals, including 15 Threatened or Endangered species. “With an excellent long-term working relationship among NASA, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service, this unique area is a shining example of how nature and technology can peacefully co-exist.” (from the Merritt Island NWR website, which I recommend for further details on the history of MINWR).
And they mean it too. The guard at the pass booth has a gun, I hear. I wouldn’t know, I’m not authorized to go on NASA property yet.
Sunset from one of the impoundment roads
I am a Public Use Intern, which means I work at the Visitor Center, sometimes helping with school groups, sometimes manning the front desk and showing people where to go to see roseate spoonbills, and sometimes doing fun intern stuff like organizing filing cabinets. Whenever I get too over-stimulated by the filing I go play with Buddy, my supervisor’s pet red rat snake. I’m currently working on a presentation about red rat snakes, so I’m sure pictures and more information will be coming soon. I also get to help with the Eagle Watch, where we set up spotting scopes on a bald eagle nest and show visitors the eaglets jumping around. Pictures of that are also forthcoming.
Two great egrets
One of the roughly 5,000 gators on the refuge. This guy (or gal) is probably about 10ft long.
A northern mockingbird reading one of the signs along Black Point Wildlife Drive. The birds here are smart!
Merritt Island is a wonderful place, especially for birds. The birding is fantastic—I’ve been here a month now and still haven’t seen everything I’d like to or gotten bored. Just today at the feeders behind the Visitor Center we had painted buntings and a white-winged dove. You know you work somewhere cool when you can casually glance out the window and see painted buntings all day.
Painted buntings, male (on left) and female (on right). There are three pairs that frequent our feeders.
I am very much looking forward to my next two months here, getting to experience and know this amazing place!