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Real stories by real people
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Ecotourism on Florida's Space Coast
Titusville Outdoors

Hiking the Scrub Ridge Trail

at Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge

by Dean Richard Pettit

"The Armadillo Stalker"

The day actually started out as a fishing trip. I awoke with the morning sun, threw a spinning rod in the car, and headed out to the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge to throw a surface plug in the hopes of pulling a nice seatrout or two from the mangrove shorelines along the Dike Roads. As it turned out, my first stop along Pumphouse Road wasn't producing this day. So I headed down SR 406, past the entrance to Black Point Wildlife Drive until the intersection with SR 3. Turning north, I drove for about 1/2 mile until I came to this sign. I'd heard that this trail was being developed by the Refuge but had never visited it. As my camera bag was next to me in the front seat, I decided today was as good as any day to explore this new hiking opportunity, and hopefully spot a Florida Scrub Jay, Florida's only endemnic bird species.

After driving down the dirt road to the parking area, I walked to the trailhead, marked by a kiosk describing the benefits of periodic wildfires and their importance to this type of habitat. I then began walking down the trail. Florida is essentially the lightning capital of the world. We have more lightning strikes here that anywhere else, particularly in the heat of Summer when late afternoon and early evening thunderstorms can be an almost daily occurance. When these lighning strikes hit, wildfires often occur.

In response to this periodic burning, a unique habitat has evolved know today as Florida Scrub. Many of these plants here not only survive these wildfires, but thrive because of them. In this photo you'll notice that most of the vegetation is very low to the ground. If this area is not allowed to burn, trees will eventually form a dense canopy shading the ground and prohibiting this lush undergrowth. This area has evolved to support a myriad plant and animal life that may not thrive elsewhere. In fact, this type of habitat is the ONLY habitat type that can support the Scrub Jay.

I walked forward, keeping my eyes and ears open. Songbird migrants flew across the trail and dove into the dense cover. Then I heard it, a rustling in the undercover. I stopped and waited. It sounded like whatever was making the noise was only a few feet away. In other locations I've seen Rufous Sided Towhees and some other species make this same sound as they scratch for food, and my understanding is that Scrub Jays feed much the same way. I've also read where Scrub Jays will bury acorns gathered off the low scrub oaks and bury them for later use. Anyway, something was scratching the ground, moving leaves and other debris. I knelt, and when I did, everything went quiet. I then backed off a few feet, the sound resumed. It never did reveal itself, but later in the hike, I caught a glimpse of what may have been a Scrub Jay at a distance, but it flew down into the thick cover before I could raise my field glasses for a positive identification. However, being early January, the northern migrants were everywhere flitting around and there were plenty of birds to see.

As you walk a little ways down the trail, to the left you'll see that you are actually on a ridge that separates the scrub habitat from the adjoining wetlands. Habitat edges like this are extremely important in the wild as many animal species may feed in one type of habitat while bedding down in another. Edges like this also support a greater biodiversity.

This dead pine tree serves as a reminder of a past wildfire and there were quite a few of these around. When these trees are killed in a wildfire, they serve as lookout towers for colonies of scrubjays where on will serve as a sentry while others feed. This particular tree has provide a place for this what I believe is a Merlin, a small Hawklike raptor, to eat his meal of a smaller bird.
As he was eating, I could see little clouds of feathers drifting downward. A successful hunter.
When this tree finally either falls or is blown down in a strong wind, it will continue it's decay, releasing important nutrients back into the scrubland soil.

After a while, the footpath intersects a wider, but little used dirt road. Here through a break in the roadside cover you can see the wetlands adjacent to the scrublands and farther beyond, a hammock and the Mosquito Lagoon, part of the Indian River Lagoon System. The uplands, wetlands, salt marshes and the lagoon itself all combine to form an extremely biologically diverse mosaic of habitats supporting one of the highest species counts in the country, all protected by one of the most complex technologies in the world, Americas Space Program.

Movement to my left on the ground caught my eye and I turned to see this Nine Banded Armadillo. This species has slowly expanded it's range. In the late 1800s it occured a little north of the Lower Rio Grand Valley along the Mexico and Texas Border, It has slowly worked it's way into the southeast and has been introdced into Florida.

I've often overlooked these animals, but as I've researched them, a most amazing animal comes to light. These guys are excellent swimmers and can even walk along the bottom of streams and ponds, gulping air into their intestines when they'd rather float to make themselve more bouyant. The hard covering on their backs is formed by sections of bone covered by skin. Contrary to common belief, this species cannot roll themselves into a ball to protect themselves from predators. Only the Three Banded Armadillo of South America can do that. They have a long sticky tongue which they use to catch their favorite food, insects and are also equipt with very strong front claws to help then tear open ant nests and dig up other insects. Females also have the ability to delay implantation of fertilized eggs during times of stress. Captured armadillos have given birth as long as two years after their capture. Armadillos almost always give birth to four identical young, the only mammal known to do so, and all four young are formed from the same egg and even share the same placenta.

This animal also has earned a spot in Southern Folklore as an "Eater of the Dead", due to their habit of digging in freshly turned earth in their search for insects. Apparently a freshly dug grave is not exempt from this practice.

Apparently the Armadillo's eyesight is not that good, as he seemed to be oblivous to my presence, shuffling his nose through the vegetation while I was but maybe 20 feet away from him. If you look closely in this photo you'll see that his eyes are extremely small. I decided to see if I could shoot a closeup of him. Carefully placing my camera bag on the ground, I set my zoom lense to 200mm, it's greatest magnification. Then I slowly approached, low the the ground. Each time he looked up I froze in place. He would look around for a minute and then resume his foraging. I took a few more steps closer until he looked up again. I froze. He resumed feeding. I stepped closer. This continued until I found myself roughly 6 feet from him. After freezing while he again surveyed his surroundings I raised the camera to my eye and focused. Then when he looked up one last time, I fired the shutter.

These guys may be half blind but they are not deaf. Upon hearing the shutter of my single lens reflex camera he launched himself into the air and to my left, crashing through the brush like a bulldozer gone nuts. I found myself laughing as I remembered how on hikes prevoius I had startled armadillos, and their noisy escape has scared me almost as bad as I had scared them. These animals sound like something huge when running through cover. Then, after convincing myself that I was NOT under attack from the Florida Skunk Ape (Yep! We have our own Sasquatch Legend here!) I would resume my hike.

After my Armadillo stalk I made my way back down the trail to my car, then decided to pay the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge Visitors Center a visit. I was informed by the ranger on duty that a member of the Birds of Prey Rehabilitation Center was on her way to release a Peregrin Falcon that had been injured about 18 months ago. When She got there, a small group of people gathered around to see the release. By all accounts this bird should have been dead. After an 18 month rehabilitation period this bird had recovered from a broken pelvis, wing, and leg. In this photo the bird is expressing it's gratitude by attempting to relieve it's caretaker of her thumb. Must be why they wear those thick leather gloves. Anyway, within minutes this beautiful Raptor was winging her way over the treetops surrounding the pond behind the center. I have to say it's a great feeling watching a creature like this return to the wild where it belongs.

This is a picture of a Scrub Jay. Even though I didn't get a shot of one on my hike I still wanted to show one on this page, as these guys are the "star" of this trail. So a quick phone call to Photographer Bob Paty solved this problem. Bob has been photographing local nature for a long time and has been published quite a bit. I feel his photography really captures the essence of this area and he readily allowed me to use this image for this page. Check his work out.
Here's a link.

Dean Richard Pettit,

Intrepid Armadillo Stalker/Photographer

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