Nature up close: Merritt Island

By “Sunday Morning” contributing videographer Judy Lehmberg.

Merritt Island on the east coast of Florida is a study in contrasts. 

When the last glaciers retreated 7,000 years ago, sea levels rose, forming marshes, lagoons, and Merritt Island. The first inhabitants were the early Indian people, or Paleo-Indians. Spanish explorers ultimately led to Spanish settlements along the Florida east coast (including St. Augustine – considered the oldest continuously-inhabited European settlement in the U.S – in 1565). Rich in wildlife, the area was used as a hunting-and-gathering ground by early inhabitants.

In 1962, the federal government acquired more than 140,000 acres north of land they already owned at Cape Canaveral for the expanding space program. NASA built the John F. Kennedy Space Center on part of the newly-acquired land, but most of the acreage went unused. In 1963 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service signed an agreement to manage the unused land as a national wildlife refuge.

The contrasts lie in this wildlife haven being in the shadow of the space center’s technological marvels, the monster rockets, the space shuttles, and realizing Kennedy’s dream of landing people on the moon.

Verne Lehmberg

Our national wildlife refuges’ goals are conservation and wildlife management. Specific goals for this island refuge are to protect and provide habitat for endangered species and migratory birds, and to provide enough habitat for the naturally high species diversity of the area. The Indian River Lagoon on the west side of the island has more than 2,000 species of plants and 2,000 species of animals, making it North America’s most diverse estuary. They also provide for human use, allowing managed fishing, hunting and non-consumptive recreation, including wildlife observation and photography. Merritt Island is truly an example of how nature and technology can coexist.

Although the island is rich in species diversity, it is the birds that really stand out. One of the least common but most entertaining Merritt Island birds is the reddish egret. Their unique hunting technique involves forming a canopy with their outspread wings while running in a zigzag pattern through shallow water. Biologists have discussed the purpose of their canopied wings; some say it is to reduce the glare on the water so they can see fish better. Others believe the canopy creates a shadow where fish feel…

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