Thursday, 30 April 2015

Merritt Island and NASA -Florida Day 1

Our first full day out on the field trip was to the Merritt Island National Nature Reserve which is an overlay refuge on land owned by the National Aeronautics and Space Admirations land (NASA’s Land).

The park's biologist Stan Howater gave us an introduction to the reserve and then took us on a drive around to see the park for ourselves.

Stan Holwater Merit Island Biologist
speaking with Dr. Christian Dunn
and Prof. Chris Freeman 
A Brief History

Merritt Island itself is a barrier island on the Atlantic coast of northern Florida that historically was comprised of saltmarsh habitat with its main uses being restricted to hunting and fishing. For decades it remained undeveloped as the saltmarsh mosquito made the area intolerable during the spring and summer months.

In the 1950’s the mosquito problem saw a massive change in management as impoundments were built to raise the water level breaking the life cycle of the mosquito and allowing for predatory fish to establish a population.

This change in water management saw drastic changes in the environment from tidal saltmarsh to non-tidal freshwater marsh and by the 1960’s most of the salt marsh was destroyed and the relatively recently formed NASA purchased the 140,000 acres for their program and the Merritt Island National nature reserve was formed.

However some species did not benefit from the change in habitat, in particular the now close to extinction Atlantic saltmarsh snake which is losing genetic integrity as it interbreeds with its cousin the freshwater banded snake and the now extinct dusky seaside sparrow.

Presently the impoundments are being managed in two different ways. The main strategy is to control the water levels to manage light, salinity, vegetation and fish to benefit the breeding birds to sustain a population that can be hunted. This is good for the reserve overall as the sale of ‘duck stamps’ which allow the owners to hunt funds the reserve.

The water levels are lowered during the dry season when the birds are beginning to breed to concentrate the fish populations and expose mud flats for shore birds, however the mosquito problem is still present and in very dry years water is pumped into the impoundments.

The other smaller strategy is to return impoundments to their natural salt marsh state providing that the mosquito threat isn't too large.

I later asked if any recent extreme weather events had caused issues in controlling the water level to which Stan explained that the current break in the decade drought Florida had been experiencing was making it very difficult to draw down the water levels for the breeding birds.

Our Journey around the Reserve 
On our Bus journey around the reserve a diverse range of species were spotted (list at the bottom), as well as evidence for their water management regime in the form of water control structures as seen in the video.
The presence of the white mangrove was noticeable with small clusters of the white mangrove species although growth did appear to be stunted. The water in some compounds also appeared to be heavily stained with dissolved organic carbon.
Stan also Pointed out a small community of the invasive Brazilian pepper (Schinus terebinthifolius) and explained that it is controlled in the reserve with a series of prescribed burns and herbicides. Controlled burns were also used elsewhere in the reserve to maintain the upland scrub. As slowly became apparent burring is a common management practice in Florida unlike the UK.
Wood Stork finding shelter in the pockets
of mangroves
Too many species were spotted to mention all individually but a few were particularly interesting usually because of the behaviour they were showing.

One of the first species of bird that we saw which turned out to be a particular highlight of the trip was a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalust) collecting nesting material from impoundment beside the Bus. We also saw a wood stalk (Mycteria americana) in a sheltered pond taking a moment to preen itself

The Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens) was another spot which since have become a firm favourite of mine. This was because of their hunting behaviour, in which they appeared to stumble around the shallows with a wing extended almost as if drunk in order to confuse the fish beneath them and so catch them.
As we drove along further we also came across a number of Anhingas (Anhinga anhinga) in the vegetation near the road and a Baby Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) swimming parallel.

However the animal highlight of the day must of been the final spotting of a number of armadillos (Dasypus novemcinctus) foraging at the side of the road. According to Stan they were usually hard to spot that this time of day (approaching 12 noon) but the overcast weather and cool breeze meant they could continue foraging when usually it would be too hot.
The NASA globe outside the Visitor Center


After visiting the the Merritt Island nature reserve we visited the John F. Kennedy NASA visitor center, which was extremely good fun and where on the bus tour I learned one or two more interesting facts about how the multi-billion dollar space program and wildlife get on.

Stan had earlier mentioned that although the site has a total size of 140,000 acres NASA only use around 6000 at any one time with big disturbance events like rocket launches being relatively infrequent so overall the refuge and NASA can function well together.

I was awestruck by
the size of the Saturn 5
 rocket that took humans to
 the moon

This can be demonstrated by the fact that just under 50 miles of beach is cordoned off by NASA for astronauts and breeding sea turtles (mainly) , and when the eggs hatch (the sea turtles) the whole NASA complex goes under blackout to help the hatchlings orientate to the sea.

Worryingly Stan also expressed some concern for the future of the Merritt island nature reserve and its relationship with NASA, particularly concerning the increasing interest in commercial spaceflight and freighting using the facilities at the Kennedy center leading to an increase in wildlife disturbance.

Species List


Common Name
Latin Name
Bald Eagle
Haliaeetus leucocephalust 
Reddish Egret
Egretta rufescens
Anhinga anhinga
Royal Tern
Thalasseus maximus
Wood Stork
Mycteria americana
Turkey Vulture
Cathartes aura
Great White Egret
Ardea alba
Belted King Fisher
Megaceryle alcyon
American Coot
Fulica americana
Little Blue Heron
Egretta caerulea
Recurvirostra americana
Wilsons Plover
Charadrius wilsonia
Tricoloured Heron
Egretta tricolor
White Pelican
Pelecanus onocrotalus
Little Egret
Egretta garzetta
Pied Billed Grebe
Podilymbus podiceps
Black Skimmers
Rynchops niger
Northern Shoveler  
Anas clypeata
Glossy Ibis
Plegadis falcinellus
Tringa semipalmata

Common Name
Latin Name
Horrible Thistles
Cirsium horridulum
Spanish Moss
Tillandsia usneoides
Cabbage Palms
Sabal palmetto
Saw Palmetto
Saw Palmetto
Slash Pine
Pinus elliottii
Wax Myrtle
Myrica cerifera
Brazilian Pepper
Schinus terebinthifolius


Common Name
Latin Name
Alligator mississippiensis


Common Name
Latin Name
Dasypus novemcinctus

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