Merritt Island

(This column first appeared in the March 16, 1998 Buffalo News.)

    I call them "Eat Your Heart Out" stories.

    With only the faintest signs of spring evident on the Niagara Frontier -- a few early red-wings displaying at marsh fringes and a grackle visiting our feeder -- a "friend" returns from some exotic place to tell you about the unusual birds he or she has seen.

    This is one of those stories and I will try to give non-birders a sense of why such an account tantalizes local bird watchers.

    On my recent Florida trip Earl Colborn and I spend most of a day at Merritt Island. To most people, that's Cape Canaveral and indeed we can see the huge rocket gantries off in the distance when we enter the National Wildlife Refuge.

    At the entrance a dozen black vultures hop around at the road edge. Like most of the birds we will see, they are so close that binoculars are not needed. In New York year ago Doug Bassett identified a black vulture that had joined the turkey vultures wintering in Letchworth Park. Seeing that single bird a quarter mile off across the gorge was worth a trip through a snowstorm for hundreds of upstate birders. We will see over fifty on this day in Florida.

    Birding the refuge is simple. We drive along miles of dike roads, each marsh or backwater exposing more birds and often new species. Most spectacular are the waders: the herons, ibises and storks. They are everywhere: standing in the water, meandering along the road, flying over the reeds. And there are so many.

    Compare the numbers we observe at Merritt Island with their status here in Buffalo.

    First the white birds. Great egret: I see perhaps a half dozen each year here and Bill Watson found the first nest on Motor Island a year ago. On Merritt we find 140 of these larger egrets. Snowy egret: I know of no recent western New York record; Merritt: 85. Wood stork: these awkward birds are seen occasionally along the Atlantic coast north to Long Island, never here; Merritt; 35. Cattle egret: these African expatriates are wanderers that occasionally make it to New York. The most recent was seen by Watson among the gulls on Buckhorn Island several years ago; Merritt: 30. White ibis: I know of only one Buffalo-area record; Merritt: 50.

    Other waders. Tri-colored heron: very rare here; Merritt: 35. Little blue heron: another rare fall visitor to New York, usually as an all-white immature; Merritt: 20, almost all adults in beautiful blue plumage. Reddish egret: never recorded here; Merritt: 5. Glossy ibis: the few seen near Buffalo always draw a crowd of birders; Merritt: 250. The number of these striking black birds with their long decurved bills I find overwhelming.

    There are other birds as well, none to my knowledge recorded near Buffalo: 25 anhingas, 10 mottled ducks, a clapper rail, 4 royal terns, 5 scrub jays, and dozens of fish crows.

    Still not sated with these exotics, we drive down to the Arthur R. Marshall-Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. There we spot two species that Buffalo birders would give eye teeth to record here: purple gallinule and limpkin. Walking the dike we have to step carefully around huge alligators whose baleful eyes focus on us from trailside.

    Since turn about is fair play, I note the absence from the Merritt Island checklist of rough-legged hawk, snowy and long-eared owls, iceland and glaucous gulls, Northern shrike -- even chickadee. Horned lark, purple finch, American crow, brown creeper and junco are rarely recorded there.

    Florida birders may want to visit Buffalo next winter.