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Ecotourism on Florida's Space Coast

Rookery Island Kayak Trip

by Dean Richard Pettit

The first thing I noticed as our kayak began gliding it's way through the shallows was the clarity of the water and the thickness of the sea grass beds on the bottom. It had been a long time since I had seen any grassbeds so lush with growth. My youth had been spent living on a canalfront home near Satellite Beach with a dock in the back yard and it seemed there was always a boat of some sort tied up at the dock. I was fortunate in that I was able to spend my formative years exploring islands and chasing seatrout across the grass flats of the Banana River portion of the Indian River Lagoon. When Fall came, huge flocks of lesser scaup would descend upon the flats while the seatrout would seek the warmer waters of the mangrove lined canals that lead the way back to my home. I also remember how each summer, the seagrass beds seemed to decline as the Pineda Causeway was built and more and more development enveloped the shorelines.

One summer, the huge schools of menhaden that used to arrive in our canal and cover the river's surface, bringing the trout with them, simply didn't arrive. They never came back as long as I lived there. Something was wrong.

But here, today, everything seemed as it should be. Clean water, mangrove lined shorelines, and birds and other wildlife living their lives as they should be, on their own terms.

I was on a kayak trip with 14 others sponsored by the Merrit Island National Wildlife Refuge as part of the "Welcome Back Songbirds Festival" held at the refuge on April 29th, 2000. Our meeting place was at the mouth of Haulover Canal on the northwest corner where it meets the Indian River Lagoon. Our guide was refuge ranger, Kevin Godsea, an excellent guide at that. My paddling partner was a young man by the name of Nathan. I never got his last name or age but I would put him at about 13. His mission was to identify as many species of birds as he could for a scouting merit badge. After a brief paddling clinic, Kevin explained to us how the seagrass beds form the basis of the food chain for the Indian River Lagoon by providing food and cover for small fish, mullet, and invertebrates which in turn provide food for just about everything else. Manatees, being vegetarians, also depend on the seagrasses. Fortunately the seagrass beds in this portion of the Indian River Lagoon have been well protected from their number one enemy, runoff pollution from development. Here the lagoon is bordered on one side by the refuge, and on the other side by the mainland, along which the Florida East Coast Railroad has a track running along the shore for miles. The presence of this track and the refuge has prevented development and it's associated runoff pollution, effectively protecting these seagrasses.

We then loaded ourselves into the kayaks and began heading for our destination, a rookery island about a mile out into the lagoon. Even as we were just leaving Haulover the bird life became evident. Our first sighting was a brown pelican flying towards us just above the water's surface. Along the lagoon shoreline, a great blue heron could be seen working the edge of the mangroves for his breakfast while an osprey surveyed the scene from his vantage point atop a tall pine tree near the water's edge. Mullet and other fish could be seen scooting out of our way as our kayaks knifed towards the island.

This island was designated as a rookery island by the refuge and signs erected a certain distance in the waters surrounding the island to keep people from landing their boats on the island. This allows the birds a safe haven to raise their young. These islands, many of which are spoil islands created by the dredging of the Intercoastal Waterway years ago, have become increasingly important as more and more shorelines along the lagoon have been developed, robbing these birds of their natural nesting areas. It is illegal to approach any of these designated islands any closer than these signs.

And this has worked wonders. As we approached the island we could see that the birds have responded by nesting in incredible numbers. Roseate spoonbills, Great blue herons, cormorants, egrets, and pelicans. The island was absolutly alive with birds feeding and tending their young. As we paddled along the southern edge of the island, maintaining our distance just out side the designated approach distance, we would stop occasionally to watch a different species carry out their lives, indifferent to our presence.

As we rounded the north west corner of the island, our guide announced that as we were in the presence of a ranger, we would be allowed for today only, to land on a sandbar just inside the no approach zone so he could set up a large spotting scope and allow us a closer look at the birdlife. While on the sandbar, we were able to observe a reddish egret who would fly out, catch a fish in the shallows and return to feeding it's fledgling while occasional groups of three or four roseate spoonbills would fly by. Groups of pelicans in full breeding plumage dominated the treetops and occasionally others would perform a flyby while groups of white ibis worked the shoreline.

My paddling partner Nathan (pictured here with our guide), and another one of our younger paddlers scoured the sandbar for shells and other interesting objects. Their favorite finds seemed to be the remenants of several horseshoe crab shells. Not being the most experienced birder in the world, I thought on one occasion that I was seeing a species of wading bird I had never seen before. On questioning our guide, I learned that I was seeing a young great blue heron that had not yet gone through it's color change. Several species go through this and we got to witness this on this trip, which is a fairly rare site because wading birds tend to nest in isolated areas and are only seen by many after they have achieved their adult coloration.

All in all, it was a great way to spend a Saturday morning, Nathan got his species sighting list, and I got to witness a spectacle I had never seen before and meet some great people. So it was a with great regret that we climbed back into our kayaks and began the trip back to civilization.

To see the rookery island in your own kayak or canoe, Drive from Titusville on the Max Brewer Causeway east across the Indian River Lagoon, past the refuge visitor's center until you come to the stoplight. Turn left at the light and head north until you cross the bridge at Haulover Canal. Turn to the left immediately after crossing the bridge and follow the dirt road as it first turns back towards the canal and then turns to the right along the canal's edge till it meets the lagoon. When you get to the lagoon, the island can be seen almost straight offshore. Remember to respect the approach limit signs posted around the island. These are placed to prevent the birds from becoming stressed and abandoning their young.

My day on the refuge wasn't quite done. As today was the "Welcome Back Songbird Festival", I decided to stop by the Refuge headquarters and visitors center and see what was happening there. All sorts of activities had been advertised in the paper. When I got there the place was alive with educational displays, rangers conducting lectures, and people taking it all in. One group in particular, a Birds of Prey Rehabilitation Group, had a bald eagle, a kestrel, which I think is one of the most beautiful birds around, and a barn owl on display. The eagle seemed pretty nervous and I don't like to stress animals out so I left him alone. But the kestrel and the barn owl didn't seem to mind having their portraits taken, providing me with a unique opportunity.

All in all it was a great day on the water and at the visitors center. I would like to thank the Merrit Island Wildlife Refuge, our guide, Kevin Godsea, the other paddlers in the group, and Lauralee Thompson (for supplying the kayaks).
      Dean Richard Pettit

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