I recently attended a birding field trip to the Merritt Island area expertly organized by Abbie Banks and guided by Deb Johnson. The so-called “space coast” is a remarkable mixture of NASA facilities, wildlife refuges and sewage treatment wetlands that attract many types of wildlife.
As we approached the entrance to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge refuge on Jan. 29 we were excited to observe a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lift off from the Cape Canaveral launch complex 40 nearby. This rocket was launching 60 Starlink satellites that are part of Elon Musk’s global internet project. Almost simultaneously we experienced the sight of tens of thousands of ducks (lesser scaups) flying overhead on their migration northward. Most of these diving ducks that feed on aquatic invertebrates will breed in Canada. The contrast between a remarkable feat of human engineering and a massive flight of ducks was impressive and quite stirring.
We also observed much smaller but still impressive flocks of mostly northern pintail ducks flying around the wetlands on Merritt Island. They will soon be migrating to the northern US, Canada and Alaska to breed. See if you can spot three avocets flying with the pintails. These are strange shorebirds primarily found in western N America where they feed by sweeping their long de-curved bill from side to side.
One of the many birds on Merritt Island that impressed me were the northern shovelers. This pair with the handsome male and the drab female both have the trademark massive bill, the better to dabble in shallow water and sift though vegetation for seeds and invertebrates. The differences in bill shape and feeding behavior of water birds represent the principle that species co-occurring in the same habitat tend to evolve to feed in different ways to minimize competition. The striking beauty of the breeding male and the camouflage of the female indicate that this species has a female mate choice system in which pretty males (which are more likely to be healthy and fit) are better able to attract a mate.
While on the refuge we observed large numbers of great southern white butterflies, a native species similar to the exotic pest cabbage butterfly. The native white was nectaring on flowers of Spanish needles, an aster that is weedy but very attractive to all butterflies. The caterpillars feed on plants of the crucifer or mustard family. The adults can be distinguished from the exotic white by the lack of black spots and presence of blue tips on the antennae.
We visited the nearby Titusville wetland sewage treatment facility. It was a cool but sunny day and we observed some reptiles out basking. This female peninsula cooter turtle feeds mostly on plants and takes every opportunity to bask and increase its body temperature to enhance digestion. The males are much smaller since they do not need a large body size to hold eggs and are “lovers not fighters.” The domed shell is an effective defense against the crushing jaws of predatory alligators. We encountered several nests which had been eaten, possibly by raccoons. The very long life span of turtles is one strategy to combat a high rate of predation on nests. T hese turtles clearly benefit from the construction of the new wetland technology in which some additional nutrients such as nitrogen are removed from secondary sewage effluent by passage through shallow water ponds with many rooted and floating plants.
We also found a striped mud turtle, much smaller than the cooter at the wetland facility. It has an interesting double-hinged lower shell or plastron which allows for a closure of the front and rear openings of the shell. This is reflected in the generic scientific name of the mud turtles- Kinosternon- or movable shell. These small turtles are relatively more mobile than the large cooters and can occupy both aquatic and land habitats depending on conditions.
Our area of SW FL could learn from the environmental stewardship illustrated by the protection of large areas of the Merritt Island barrier ecosystem in a refuge and a national seashore, and the use of wetlands to provide additional treatment of secondary sewage which still contains large amounts of harmful nutrients. These “working wetlands” also provide considerable habitat for wildlife.